Evin Demirel: UALR Basketball with the Best Recruiting Class in Arkansas?


By Evin Demirel, of The Best of Arkansas Sports

Recently UALR basketball took a step toward recapturing the Mike Newell-era magic of the mid 1980s with the commitment of a four-star high school schooler who appears to be the highest rated player in program history.

Deshaun Corprew, a 6-6 guard from North Carolina rated by recruiting outlet 247Sports as the No. 90 player in class of 2016, chose UALR over offers from the likes of Texas, Florida State, North Carolina State, Kansas State and Wichita State. Understandably, some fans are in a state of semi-shock. The players of Corprew’s caliber who play for Sun Belt Conference programs almost always go that route as second option after transferring from high major programs. It’s very rare for such a player to commit to a Sun Belt team from the get-go. 

So, why did this four-star recruit choose UALR? 

That story begins in Durham, N.C., where UALR assistant Brian Burg had coached at North Carolina Central University for a couple of years before moving to Little Rock this spring. In that time, Burg had established a bond with Corprew when the Quality Education Academy student was a relative unknown. Corprew appreciated the unwavering interest – even when bigger schools came calling as he ascended the recruiting ranks in recent months. “He’s real big on relationships – if he really trusts you, he’ll give you everything you got,” says Stefan Welsh, a coach working for Boo Williams, the AAU program for which Corprew starred in recent summers.

Welsh, who played basketball for the Razorbacks 2006-2010, lived in Little Rock on and off from 2010 through 2013, hanging with a circle of friends including the rapper 607 and Little Rock native Archie Goodwin. So with out-of-staters like Corprew he can vouch for the town’s nationally underappreciated charms.

He can also vouch for the way Corprew has grown as a player, developing into a 6’6”, 200-pound shooting guard Welsh predicts will be “the steal of this recruiting class.” Welsh praises Corprew’s patience and offensive versatility – “he’ll dunk on you, he has a nice step back jumper and he’ll pull up from an NBA three right now” – but it’s Corprew’s defensive intensity and ability to guard positions one through four which have garnered the most national acclaim. Recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer, for instance, tabbed him as his class’ Tony Allen. Welsh likens him to a hybrid between former Razorbacks Sonny Weems and Jason Henry – the former for his athleticism and defensive ruggedness and the latter for his ability to score at any time, in a variety of ways. 

The University of Arkansas didn’t offer Corprew a scholarship. “If I had it my way, he’d be in the northwest section of the state, but UALR’s the best fit for him right now,” Welsh adds. If Corprew can recruit one or two other high-profile players to also sign with UALR, “it’s not far-fetched to think they could have the best recruiting class in the state of Arkansas this year.”

If top Razorback target Malik Monk ends up signing with Arkansas, that definitely won’t happen. But, all the same, Welsh’s observation brings up a few situational parallels between the Bentonville High super-recruit and Corprew. Monk, also a class of 2016 player, has the potential to put the Razorbacks on a trajectory toward its consistently elite levels of the late 1980s through mid 1990s, when the program’s most dynamic coach – Nolan Richardson – was at the helm. In Monk, the Hogs would get a combo guard who can create his own highly unique legacy at the program. No Razorback guard has ever been an All-American as a freshman and a Top 5 NBA draft pick.

Similar dynamics are at play with Corprew and UALR, only on smaller scales. The Trojans, of course, produced a late first-round pick in Derek Fisher but Fisher wasn’t an elite recruit in high school. Corprew, meanwhile, has been inspired by the likes of Elfrid Payton, who developed into a lottery pick in his three years at Sun Belt rival Louisiana-Lafayette. “Deshaun wanted to go somewhere where he could make a big-time splash on a national level,” Welsh adds.

Were Corprew to help lead UALR  – now branding itself as the “Little Rock Trojans” – to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance, said big-time splash will definitely follow. In 36 years at the Division I level, the Trojans have won a single NCAA Tournament game, but that 1986 win was a doozy. The first-round knockout of heavily favored Notre Dame punctuated a searing season stretch run (18 of 20 games) by the most dynamic head coach UALR has ever had: Mike Newell. 

In his second season at the helm, the 34-year-old Newell was driven to put the program on the national map. He did so with the help of future NBA players Pete Myers and Myron Jackson. As a No. 14 seed UALR upset No. 3 Notre Dame 90-83, which briefly turned him into a golden boy in local media circles. “People used to call it the University of Arkansas Last Resort,” Newell told author Jeffrey Slatton. “But from the time we beat Notre Dame till the time I left there, they took a back seat to no one.”

Much of Newell’s 6-year tenure coincided with a low ebb in Razorback basketball following the departure of coach Eddie Sutton to Kentucky. In the late 1980s, while new Hogs coach Nolan Richardson was struggling to build Arkansas once again into a powerhouse, UALR was the state’s only program to consistently appear in post-season tournaments. This allowed the Trojans to snag unprecedented share of the statewide limelight. “Attendance increased, advertising and promotion increased, fund-raising increased (led by Newell), coverage by the local media increased, and enthusiastic fans began to think of UALR as a big-time basketball school, or on the brink of becoming one, for the first time,” the Arkansas TimesMax Brantley and Doug Smith wrote. “A UALR supporter who says he was much more of a supporter when Newell was there recalls that ‘in those days, you could see somebody on the street wearing a UALR jersey or a UALR cap. That had never happened before.’ Or since.”

Newell, publically brash with pro-Trojans swagger and privately anti-Razorback, relished UALR’s surge to the forefront of the state’s consciousness.  “Newell refused to take a back seat to King Frank and his Pigs,” Slatton wrote in his 2006 book Arkansas’ NCAA Team. During that 1986 NCAA Tournament run, bumper stickers stating “UALR Trojans: Arkansas’ NCAA Team” went viral in central Arkansas. “It was as much a shot at the Razorbacks and their fans as anything,” Slatton wrote.

Newell told him “that wasn’t my idea, but I loved it. That was fantastic… I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t.”

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It’s too early to tell if Deshaun Corprew will usher in another Trojans golden era. He first must sign a national letter of intent, likely in November, and academically qualify. At this point none of that is guaranteed.

If Corprew does suit up, however, he could push the program to an all-time high in terms of overall pure team talent. Under first-year head coach Chris Beard, the Trojans project to boast a Florida State transfer, a Mississippi State transfer and a former three-star recruit in 2016-17.

While Corprew, this group and another possible future Top 200-type signing would constitute an historic group for UALR in sheer high school prestige, it should be noted the biggest superstars at the mid-major and small-college level often arrive with little fanfare.    

Mike Newell never forgot this lesson after a scrawny teen from UCA arrived at his office in 1984. The year before the teen had been a 6’0” team manager by way of Hamburg High School. Nobody had offered Scottie Pippen a scholarship but now he was growing and starting to come into his own as a college player. Pippen wanted to transfer, and his hometown friend Myron Jackson – a UALR guard – could speak to his potential.  

Yet Newell wasn’t feeling it.  “I called [UCA Coach] Don Dyer and told him what had transpired. I didn’t want him going anywhere else. I told him you better get over here and get him,” Newell told Slatton decades later.

“I wouldn’t do that over again.”

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