After a disappointing 2014–15 season that ended with the firing of its head coach, Little Rock is off to its best start in program history.
How do you go from winning just 13 games one season to having one of the top records in the country the next? Ask the Little Rock Trojans, who are off to the best start in program history with a 17–2 record.
The Trojans were one of the last six remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball before dropping a game at Texas Tech on Dec. 22, and they’re one of just 10 teams in the nation right now with fewer than three losses. They’ve worked their way into the top 50 on kenpom.com and own three top 80 wins—a staggering turn of events for a Sun Belt team that finished last year No. 223 and fired head coach longtime coach Steve Shields in its wake.
The Sun Belt has had two surprising teams this season—UT Arlington, which finished last season a mediocre 16–15, also got off to an impressive start by beating Ohio State and Memphis back-to-back in November. And when Little Rock visited the Mavericks on Saturday, the teams were a combined 30–5 and atop the conference. Given the teams’ proximity in the rankings and similar records, you would have expected an evenly matched affair. Instead, the game served as a statement. Little Rock laid down the hammer on UT Arlington in the early going, jumping out to a blistering 18–0 lead and driving it up to a 42–14 score at halftime.
A good team in their own right, the Mavericks rallied in the second half with their own big run. In the end the Trojans hung on, and while they weren’t able to sustain the performance, their first-half effort shows the kind of ceiling they’re playing their best.
The win put Little Rock in the driver’s seat in the Sun Belt at 7–1 and with four straight home games on deck. But how did it get there?
In April, the Trojans hired Chris Beard as their new coach, replacing a coach with 12 years of experience with one who hadn’t yet made his Division I head coaching debut. But Beard came with a different kind of experience: he spent seven years as an assistant under Bob Knight at Texas Tech and took over a Division II Angelo State program coming off three straight losing seasons and led it to a 47–15 mark in the next two.
Under Beard, Little Rock has seen its defense go from middling in 2014–15 to one of the best in the country this season. On kenpom.com, the Trojans rank No. 8 in defensive two-point percentage, No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency and effective field goal defense and No. 13 in turnover percentage. In the game against UT Arlington, Little Rock went up against the nation’s leader in rebounds per game and outrebounded it by two.
The trio of Marcus Johnson Jr. (12.9 points per game), Josh Hagins (12.3 ppg, 4.7 assists per game) and Jalen Jackson (9.1 ppg) lead the Trojans on offense. No one player dominates the scoring or the boards, which can make the team hard to stop, and no one on the roster averages more than 1.7 turnovers per game. As a team, Little Rock takes care of the ball well and has a high steal rate, but plays slow: The Trojans rank No. 345 in adjusted tempo.
Another thing Little Rock has going in its favor is experience. Its top nine scorers are all juniors or seniors; its biggest underclassman contributor is freshman guard Deondre Burns, who is averaging 2.3 points in 5.5 minutes per game. The Division I team average for experience is 1.7 years, but the Trojans boast 2.34 years.
If Little Rock wants to have any shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in the event it falters in the Sub Belt tourney, it might need to win out the rest of the regular season. Kenpom.com gives the Trojans at least a 50% chance of winning each of their remaining games, so it’s not out of the question, but it will take a heroic effort.
While rare, at-large bids from the Sun Belt conference aren’t impossible—Middle Tennessee (2012–13) and South Alabama (2007–08) received bids in recent seasons. Neither team lost more than two games in conference, and Little Rock currently has one. Complicating the issue is that there are several other mid-major teams that at this point could potentially steal an at-large bid if they don’t win their conference tournament, namely Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Wichita State, Valparaiso and Monmouth. In such a wild season there could be a real fight on the bubble this year for whatever scarce at-large bids may be given to mid-majors, so its up to each team right now to build its best case possible.
Player to Watch: Belmont junior forward Evan Bradds
After leading the nation in field goal percentage last season (68.8%), Bradds is back for more this year with a 71.4% mark through 20 games that currently ranks second. (Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant is first, connecting on 71.6% of his attempts.) In fact, his field goal percentage is so high that he’s been better from the floor than he has from the free throw line, where he shoots 67.9%. The Bruins star leads his team with 18.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and even adds 2.1 assists.
Bradds’s play has helped Belmont compile a 15–6 record so far, including a 7–0 Ohio Valley mark, which leads the conference. Last year, Bradds scored 21 points in the OVC tournament championship to help his team stun Murray State and grab its fourth NCAA bid in five years. With the way Bradds and the Bruins are playing, they look well on their way to making it five out of six.
Game of the Week: Wichita State at Evansville, Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, ESPNUWichita State got off to a very rocky start this season, largely due to injuries to Fred VanVleet and Anton Grady, but the two are now healthy and the Shockers are rolling. Since dropping to 5–5 after an overtime loss to Seton Hall on Dec. 19, Wichita State has reeled off nine straight wins and climbed back into the AP top 25. Assuming they beat Loyola Chicago on Wednesday, the Shockers will carry a 10-game winning streak to Evansville for a critical Missouri Valley matchup.
The Purple Aces, which are led by last week’s Player to Watch, D.J. Balentine, took a stumble last Sunday when they fell by 17 to Indiana State on the road. The loss leaves them in precarious position at 6–2 the MVC and about to face the conference’s leading teams this week in Southern Illinois and Wichita State. Go 0–2, and a regular season title may be out of reach. That’s why Sunday’s game is so important to Evansville, and it should be a solid road test for the Shockers.
Stat of the Week: 67
Oakland’s under-the-radar superstar Kay Felder contributed to 67 points in the Golden Grizzlies’ 111–95 win over Green Bay on Saturday. Felder scored 29 points and dished out 14 assists, including assisting on all nine of Max Hooper’s three-pointers in the game (a career-high for Hooper). Hooper, by the way, only shoots threes. He’s taken 158 field goals this season, all from behind the arc, and made 45.6% of them. Not too shabby.