Each weekend leading up to the tournament, I will be profiling a team that you may not know very much about, but will want to when you are filling out your brackets in March. Stealing a term used by Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner of ESPN, these teams will be referred to as “Giant Killers.” These are teams that, if they can find their way into the NCAA Tournament, could take down the best teams in the country, even if you have never heard of them. The first “Giant Killer” that I will be looking at is the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans.
Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Sun Belt Conference
Little Rock, Arkansas
Head Coach: Chris Beard (1st Season)
Record: 13-1, 3-0 conf.
SOS (Strength of Schedule): 182
Best Wins: 49-43 @ San Diego State; 64-60 @ Tulsa; 66-44 @ DePaul
PG Josh Hagins (11.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.6 SPG)
G Marcus Johnson Jr. (14.6 PPG, 44% 3PT)
F Jalen Jackson (9.7 PPG)
In his first season as a Division I head coach, Chris Beard has his UALR Trojans primed to win the Sun Belt Conference, and go into the NCAA Tournament with a good chance to upset a few high seeds and make a nice little run. Beard has been an assistant coach with Texas and North Texas, and he was an associate head coach at Texas Tech from 2001-2011. He spent the last two seasons as head coach at D-II Angelo State.
Beard has inherited a very experienced team, as the Trojans’ entire rotation is made up of juniors and seniors, led by senior Josh Hagins. Hagins, a 6’1″ point guard from Bossier City, LA, has been a major contributor for UALR since his freshman season in 2012-2013. Hagins puts up numbers all across the board, averaging 11.5 points and nearly 5 assists a game. He also does some work defensively, averaging just over 1.5 steals a game.
The Trojans really struggled last season, finishing with a 13-18 record, which resulted in the end of former head coach Steve Shields’ run at the helm of the program, a position he held since 2004. Beard has stepped in this season and completely turned this team around, as they would be perfect had it not been for a 65-53 loss @ Texas Tech on December 22.
There are a couple key statistics that give UALR great “Giant Killer” potential. KenPom has the Trojans ranked 10th in the country in defensive efficiency. They have held all but two opponents (Texas Tech, Central Arkansas) under 65 points this year. They are also the only team rated in KenPom’s top-10 in both offensive turnover % and defensive turnover %, meaning they force turnovers at a tremendous clip, while also limiting turnovers on the offensive side of the ball.
There is one particular stat, though, that separates UALR from other “Giant Killers,” and that is their free throw shooting percentage. The Trojans are 2nd in the country in FT shooting at 79.8 percent. Only Pitt, at 79.9 percent, is better. Every player in UALR’s rotation shoots over 70% from the free throw line. When it comes to the tournament, bad free throw shooting can lose games. If the Trojans have a lead late in a tourney game, there won’t be a weak FT shooter on the court for the other team to foul.
The Trojans are now the favorites to win the Sun Belt, but potential road blocks include UT-Arlington (12-2, 3-0) and defending league champion Georgia State (9-3, 2-1). If UALR earns the Sun Belt’s auto-bid to the tournament, expect them to be in the 11-13 seed range, and be a legitimate threat to advance to the Sweet 16, and maybe beyond.
That does it for Bracketball’s first “Giant Killer” profile of 2016. Stay tuned tomorrow for the first “Primetime Player” profile, where I will look at a player that could have a major impact on the race towards a National Championship.