Almost every college basketball season, there is one program that comes completely out of nowhere to join the national scene with a program-defining banner year, taking its fans and even the country on one fun ride.
Naturally, part of the cool factor of such seasons is one can rarely peg where those teams are coming from. So it was with Arkansas-Little Rock of the Sun Belt Conference in 2015-16, as the Trojans rose from mediocrity or something less to a legitimate national player-and behind a new coach, no less.
UALR (or, “Little Rock,” as the school confusingly now wants its teams to be known, even as the school’s actual name has not changed) was a surprise unbeaten late in December, winning its first 10 games. The Trojans never cooled off, finishing with a glittery 30-5 record, setting a school record for wins, and then knocking off Big Ten behemoth Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Long known best for its success under former coach Mike Newell in the 1980s-which included an NCAA Tournament upset of Notre Dame in 1986 and an NIT semifinals run the following year-this was the greatest single season in school history. It was a remarkable story, and all the more considering Little Rock was coming off a 13-18 season and an eighth-place finish in the Sun Belt, and was led by a first-year coach in Chris Beard.
UALR performed its magic following a formula similar to fellow southwest school Stephen F. Austin. Like SFA, the Trojans won with a definitive style, playing sticky team defense that helped the team rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense. Offensively, Little Rock ran a motion offense heavily influenced by Bob Knight, Beard’s one-time boss at Texas Tech and the coach who made the offense popular years ago. UALR proved that a team doesn’t have to be the tallest and doesn’t need the biggest, longest athletes when it can trust in and excel at a team-oriented philosophy, something many schools like them would be wise to learn from.
Incidentally, Little Rock was not the only surprise in the Sun Belt; in fact, the league may have had the two biggest surprises in the country for a time until an unfortunate injury. Texas-Arlington got off to a rip-roaring 13-3 start to the season that included wins at Ohio State, Memphis and Texas-El Paso, plus an overtime loss at Texas. The Mavericks forced themselves into the national conversation but were dealt a cruel blow, though, when leading scorer Kevin Hervey tore his ACL during warmups for UTA’s Jan. 21 game against Arkansas State. Hervey was on pace to challenge longtime Louisiana-Lafayette star Shawn Long for league player of the year honors, and the Mavs went 11-8 the rest of the season.
The Sun Belt tournament was a rarity in 2016, one of the few events won by its highest seed. No. 1 seeds were 10-for-31 in winning conference tourneys this year, but UALR was one of them after roaring back in the second half to top No. 2 Louisiana-Monroe 70-50 in the final. In a battle between two red-hot teams (the Trojans all season, but ULM actually even more coming into the game, having won nine straight), the Warhawks held a five-point halftime lead before Little Rock outscored them 42-17 in the final 20 minutes. Roger Woods scored 19 points and the Trojans buckled down defensively, allowing ULM 24% shooting in the second half.
The title game was kind of a metaphor for the entire event, which started out with some surprises but was overtaken by higher seeds as it went on. The opening round of the four-level bracket saw the No. 7 and 8 seeds win, with No. 8 South Alabama holding off fifth-seed Georgia Southern 67-61 and then No. 7 Texas State eliminating defending champion and 6 seed Georgia State 63-61. Both were knocked out in the next round, though, with No. 4 Louisiana-Lafayette routing South Alabama 90-68 and third-seeded Texas-Arlington coming back from a halftime deficit to topple Texas State 72-63.
There also was relatively little drama in the semifinals, as the rested top two seeds both moved on. UALR briefly allowed UL-Lafayette to get close in the second half before pulling away for a 72-65 win behind 16 bench points from Jalen Jackson. Louisiana-Monroe then knocked out UT-Arlington 82-71, advancing to the school’s first conference tournament final since 2002 in the Southland Conference.
Player of the Year: Shawn Long, F/C, Sr., Louisiana-Lafayette
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Roberson, G, Sr., Louisiana-Monroe
Freshman of the Year: Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern
Coach of the Year: Chris Beard, Arkansas-Little Rock
Tookie Brown, G, Fr., Georgia Southern
Majok Deng, F, Sr., Louisiana-Monroe
Josh Hagins, G, Sr., Arkansas-Little Rock
Shawn Long, F/C, Sr., Louisiana-Lafayette
Erick Neal, G, So., Texas-Arlington
- Arkansas-Little Rock got off to a surprising 10-0 start, won the Sun Belt regular season and tournament titles, and capped a 30-5 season with a win over Purdue in the NCAA Tournament, marking the second straight year a Sun Belt team won a game in the NCAAs. The Trojans’ 17-win improvement also was the most by a Division I team this year.
- Led by Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington’s non-conference success, the Sun Belt finished a respectable 17th in conference RPI, its best finish since 2012-13.
- The Sun Belt posted five wins over teams that finished in the RPI top 80. Little Rock knocked off San Diego State and Tulsa, Louisiana-Monroe defeated Tennessee-Chattanooga and Georgia State beat Middle Tennessee State.
- Louisiana-Lafayette’s Shawn Long ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and tied for fifth in double-doubles (23). Also, UT-Arlington led the country in total rebounds per game (43.71) and also was 12th nationally in rebound margin (+8.4).
What we expected, and it happened: Shawn Long was a double-double machine yet again and Louisiana-Lafayette was once again one of the best teams in the league, though the Ragin’ Cajuns-No. 307 in NCAA Division I in three-point field goal percentage-never could solve Arkansas-Little Rock’s pack-it-in defense.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: After back-to-back regular season titles and winning an NCAA Tournament game the year before, we figured Georgia State would at least remain a contender, even without R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow. The Panthers ran hot and cold all year, though, and dropped to the very middle of the Sun Belt, finishing sixth of 11 teams.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Arkansas-Little Rock was nothing less than the greatest surprise story in the country, transformed under first-year coach Chris Beard from a 13-18 team to a 30-5 group that defeated teams like DePaul, San Diego State and Tulsa on the road and then toppled Purdue in a dramatic NCAA Tournament game. Also, Texas-Arlington’s non-conference run was every bit as out of nowhere as the Trojans’, with wins at Memphis, Ohio State and UTEP earning the team much deserved attention in December.
Team on the rise: Texas-Arlington. The Mavericks made a big jump in 2015-16, and the sky seems to be the limit if Kevin Hervey returns from an ACL injury. Even if he doesn’t or is not the same player, though, UTA will be the league favorite with just about everyone back.
Team on the decline: Georgia State. Along with UTA, the Panthers were the only other Sun Belt team to make a significant move in one direction or another. Unfortunately, that move was down, though GSU certainly could move right back up next year.
2016-17 Sun Belt Outlook
There’s no getting around it and no avoiding it: some are going to view UALR’s 2015-16 season as something of a flash in the pan. After one year, Beard was off to UNLV, and then Texas Tech, but also gone are heart-and-soul seniors Josh Hagins and Roger Woods, two of the three double-figure scorers on the team. Marcus Johnson remains, and enough is there for the Trojans to remain feisty again if they buy into the team concept last year’s club did so well. Could they win 20+ games again? Certainly, if the chemistry is as good as it was this past season, but it’s in arguable that new coach Wes Flanigan will be making do with a different team.
With the rest of last year’s top four sustaining some big graduation losses, Texas-Arlington is poised to slide into the favorite’s role. Coach Scott Cross regularly went 10-deep a year ago, and just about all of them return from a team that pounded the glass furiously and pressured on defense. If Kevin Hervey is back from his ACL injury-no guarantee-then UTA is a heavy favorite, but even if not, the Mavericks can be the best team if they improve on their 42.5% shooting even a little.
Elsewhere, Georgia Southern will certainly be a chic pick to make a big move up the standings. The Eagles have an exciting young talent in Tookie Brown, were one of the youngest teams in the country a year ago and still have just one senior entering 2016-17. GSU also was not a very good shooting last year, though, and also struggled to rebound. It would surprise few if Georgia State also returned to the top four, and maybe this is the year Danny Kaspar, his well-coiffed hair and mustache get Texas State to make a big move forward. Louisiana-Lafayette and Lousiana-Monroe also cannot be dismissed, though the Ragin’ Cajuns will be small without Shawn Long and Keith Richard’s Warhawks lose a lot from what has become one of the more solid programs in Sun Belt.