The Little Rock Trojans enter conference play with a school best 10-1 start through their non-conference schedule. The Trojans kicked off Sun Belt conference play last night with a 69-60 win against South Alabama to improve to 11-1.
The Trojans had a shot at a perfect non-conference season, but fell just short against Texas Tech in their final non-conference game. Texas Tech, much like the Trojans, has become an unexpected force in the Big 12 this season. Tech’s only loss came on the road against Utah early in the season, a team would would later turn around and knock off then #7 Duke.
Little Rock coach Chris Beard says his focus always has been on playing strong in conference.
“We try to schedule the best teams (in non-conference) to prepare us for conference play,” Beard said before the Texas Tech game last week. “It is much more important for me to win the last 10 games than the first 10.”
This should not be viewed as all coach speak either, Beard understands the importance of conference play. It should be important to note that since 2009 only one team from the Sun Belt has earned an at Large Bid to the NCAA tournament (Middle Tenn in 2013). Each of the Trojan’s four NCAA tournament appearances have also came by way of a conference championship.
The Trojans entered the season predicted to finish 8th in the conference. With a first year head coach in Beard and a number of new faces in the lineup this seemed like a reasonable prediction. Entering conference play the Trojans have risen to a predicted finish of #2 in conference and a 22% chance of winning the tournament. Even without a conference win, strong play throughout and a high RPI (Currently #35) could still net an at-large birth.
Sun Belt play started sluggish last night against South Alabama with the Trojans quickly going down 11-0 to start the game. The Trojans got hot thanks to Josh Hagins to go on a 13-3 run to take a halftime lead of 34-30. In the second half the Little Rock defense came alive holding South Alabama to just 35% shooting to lock up the victory.
“I thought we showed a lot of toughness tonight,” Beard said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team get down 11-0 to start and then be able to fight back in the game and show composure and poise. That’s about as proud as I’ve been in the locker room in a long time.”
The Trojans travel to take on Troy (5-7) this Saturday. Troy lost their conference opener against Arkansas St. last night 84-81. Troy has played every single team close this season, despite the 7 losses, including close losses to Ole Miss, Seaton Hall, and Idaho.
The Trojans return home to Little Rock the following week with a game Thursday against Louisiana Lafayette(4-6) and Saturday against Louisiana Monroe (5-7). Tickets are available for both games.