Jim Harris – Trojans Take Aim at NCAA Tournament, and Taking Over Little Rock


NEW ORLEANS — The Little Rock Trojans men’s basketball team’s moment of truth has arrived. It would be great for the Trojans if, like champions in the highly rated conferences, they could play this league tournament here with no added pressure of having to secure an NCAA Tournament berth, but the Sun Belt Conference doesn’t offer such luxury. A 27-4 regular season record will only leave Little Rock on an ever-expanding bubble of NCAA tournament hopefuls on Sunday if the Trojans drop one here.

We already saw what being a top seed gets you on the women’s side on Friday when Arkansas State’s magnificent season likely came crashing down in a semifinal loss to hot-shooting Troy, 96-89. As well as ASU played all season, entering Friday’s play with a 26-4 record, it still boiled down to one game for the Red Wolves — carrying the top seed with no guarantee of an NCAA spot not only tightened them up, it served as a bull’s eye for Troy, which tossed in 12 three-pointers. Once again, ASU, which ran away with the regular season conference title, will probably slide into a Women’s NIT spot after losing to a now 19-12 team. Troy plays Little Rock’s women, a 63-52 winner over Louisiana-Lafayette, in the title game at 7 p.m. Saturday.

At least we know that, when perennial mid-major power Middle Tennessee was part of the league, the conference could get two women’s teams into the NCAA field.

The men’s side hasn’t been that fortunate in almost a decade, when both Western Kentucky and South Alabama were rolling at the same time.

The league doesn’t have enough teams with even decent RPI numbers. Little Rock was recently has high as 33, ahead of many usual name powerhouses, until slipping back to 49 after a regular season-ending road loss at woeful Appalachian State.

So, Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against the winner of Friday’s quarterfinal between Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama is the first of two must wins for a Trojans team that has blown away the school mark for wins in a season. Little Rock can’t be looking ahead to Sunday’s noon championship game, either, or it will be headed home before then.

The bull’s eye is fully on the Trojans. Little Rock is the one team here who will feel the tightness around the throat of having to finish what it started over the past 31 games, and now it’s a two-game season. Everyone else gets a free shot. That is why it’s been so hard in recent years for the regular-season winner to move on to the NCAA Tournament; remember UALR’s amazing run in 2011, when the Trojans were mediocre all season and a serious underdog in four games, yet they won them all, capped by Solomon Bozeman’s game-winning buzzer shot against North Texas, to advance to first-round elimination in Dayton.

I don’t like to hear Little Rock’s coaching staff and players already referencing their resume (wins on the road at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul, for instance) as good enough to get an at-large bid if things don’t work out here. I hate even letting the idea of losing into the post-season equation.

Little Rock is guaranteed more play in March, though, as the Sun Belt’s overall winner — that assures the Trojans of an NIT bid if they don’t secure the league’s automatic berth. Any postseason beyond the league tournament would be welcome for a university that has only had one post-season bid in 24 years.

Coincidentally, the school took a night earlier in the season to honor the 1986 Trojans that pulled off UALR’s only NCAA Tournament victory, a stunning upset of three-seed Notre Dame before losing a double-overtime game to sixth-seed North Carolina State in the round of 32. UALR was in the long-gone Trans American Athletic Conference then, and  Mike Newell used that late success to put the program on the national map, albeit briefly. It came at a time when Arkansas and then new coach Nolan Richardson were struggling, and Newell didn’t let a chance go by over the next three years to let everybody know he wanted to play the Hogs and prove who was better. They almost did meet in the NCAA round of 32 in 1989 until Louisville put the Trojans away late in the first round, then dominated Arkansas on the weekend.

Newell may not have made the Trojans Little Rock’s team, but he had the city abuzz with the excitement of the NCAA trips and an NIT Final Four visit in New York in 1987. The Trojans filled their part-time home at the Statehouse Convention Center (5,000 seats), filled Barton Coliseum when the Statehouse was turned over to boat shows during February and March, and even sold out the Pine Bluff Convention Center when Newell’s 1987 team won its way to New York.

Newell’s mistake during all of this was verbally taking on the mighty Hogs and their loyal fan base, which was happy to root for the Trojans during the salad days. By the end of 1990, when the Trojans exited another NCAA first round in a 30-point loss to eventual national champion UNLV, while Nolan had delivered big time with a Final Four appearance for the Hogs, many folks around town and UALR were ready to see Newell move on. It took 21 years for UALR to earn a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.

It’s funny how fickle the Arkansas sports fan can be, and it’s not reserved for the Razorbacks.

Now, UALR has had its best success on the court during a regular season, and it’s coincided with the arrival of new coach Chris Beard and the athletic administration’s decision to market itself as “Little Rock’s team,” with “Little Rock” as the team moniker, which I have whole-heartedly endorsed here and elsewhere. As Arkansas-Fayetteville becomes more northwest focused with its teams, relegating its central Arkansas fanbase to low-level opponents in both major sports, Little Rock basketball fans deserve their own team. For that matter, they can root for two teams.

Gradually, the local fans came to embrace this highly successful, defensively sound Trojans team with big turnouts in the Jack Stephens Center during the last month of the season. Fans learned how to make their presence felt, embracing the “defense, defense” chant to encourage the suffocating effort by the home team. It started to feel like the way the local fans supported Newell’s teams. Beard, a no-nonsense guy, took an approach this season that was totally opposite of Newell, always saying the right things, not trying to set up some kind of discord with the program in Fayetteville.

The state is plenty big enough to support more than one major basketball program. I’m certain athletic director Chase Conque’s plans are even bigger than what he’s shown so far in making UALR/Little Rock a basketball draw. He has Beard to thank, but he also has shown he could make the difficult decision right off the bat by parting with the likeable Steve Shields after last season to bring Beard aboard.

It was the NCAA surprise of 1986 that jump-started Newell’s exciting run through 1990. To get closer to being “Little Rock’s team,” this bunch of Trojans needs an NCAA appearance. They have to take care of business here on Saturday and Sunday to get there.

little rock trojans ncaa tournament

Photo courtesy of Mark L. Wagner


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