Basketball has a tough act to follow
UALR basketball enjoyed a special 2010-11 season. It was a tale of two distinct teams. On the men’s side, it didn’t appear they would make much noise, especially late. For the Lady Trojans, they were expected to contend for a conference championship and anything less would have been a letdown.
The men faltered down the stretch, going 7-9 in conference play and 19-17 overall. They suffered close losses on the road to University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Arkansas State, as well as home losses to Western Kentucky and North Texas. In a miraculous turnaround, they found a way to march through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, where they won four games in four days to capture the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship. They advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they played the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and lost a heartbreaker in overtime 81-77.
For the women’s team, a season that didn’t end with an NCAA Tournament appearance would have been considered lackluster. With the senior trio of Chastity Reed, Asriel Rolfe and Shanika Butler, the team delivered, going 14-2 in conference play and 23-8 overall. They went into the SBC Tournament with a first-round bye and were able to avenge their only home loss of the season by beating Western Kentucky in the championship game to capture the SBC Tournament Championship. They advanced to the women’s NCAA Tournament and played University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, losing 59-55.
With the start of the 2011-12 season just around the corner, UALR hosted its Basketball Media Day on Oct. 27 in the Bob Brown Media Room at the Jack Stephens Center.
Men’s coach Steve Shields and women’s coach Joe Foley were there to answer questions from local media about their thoughts on the upcoming season. Two players from each team were also on hand; sophomore guard Chuck Guy and sophomore forward Will Neighbour represented the men’s team, while junior guard Janette Merriex and senior forward Britteni Williams represented the Lady Trojans.
Each team is facing the loss of key contributors on both sides of the ball as well as the question of whether younger players can step up.
Foley isn’t as concerned about replacing the scoring he’s lost, he worries more about the players responding on the defensive end and limiting turnovers.
“I think we can score, I don’t think there will be any doubt we’ll be able to score,” he said. “Defensive-wise, I think that’s where we’re probably going to have to learn to pick up the intensity and turning the ball over will be the same way. I think those two will be harder than the scoring [to replace].”
Sophomore Nia Gregory will be baptized by fire at the point guard position this season, after being played sparingly last year, but Foley is encouraged and said he sees a little bit of Rolfe in Gregory.
“Nia is very competitive,” Foley said. “She’s kind of in the same mold as Asriel [Rolfe], she really works hard and she really enjoys playing, so she’s very receptive and she listens a lot.”
He said he thinks the key is to help Gregory understand she’s not alone out there and to learn to rely on the older, more seasoned players.
“You’ve got experienced kids to play with, so make sure you’re getting the ball to them at the right time,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about scoring as much.”
Foley also talked about what the loss of three seniors meant to the team and how they would have to address those issues.
“I felt like we were very good at three things,” he said. “Chas was a great scorer, [But] I think we’ll have a little bit more balanced scoring, I don’t think there will be any doubt. I think our offense will not go through one person, it will go through different people on different nights.”
He also lamented losing defensive specialist Shanika Butler. “Nika was one of the best defensive players in the country,” he said. “So, we’ve gotta try to replace that.”
And he lauded Rolfe’s ability to limit turnovers. “You’ve got your best point guard who doesn’t turn it over,” he said. “You can’t beat yourself with turnovers, you gotta have a great defense and you gotta be able to score, and we lost all three of those.”
Merriex said she believes she’s witnessed the team’s chemistry starting to build in practice.
“From where we started, you can tell it’s better, chemistry-wise,” she said. “We’re getting a lot more movement from the beginning, the freshman are not wondering ‘where do I go now?,’ they’re starting to get the hang of our motion offense.”
Williams said she believes the team is getting to know each other better and she likes the attitude of the team so far.
“We spend a lot of time together, on and off the court,” she said. “Obviously it’s a little bit more challenging for the freshmen as they’re coming in and learning defense and motion offense. It’s hard, but everyone’s been keeping a pretty positive attitude.”
Foley also said he realizes that his team is not the only one to lose experienced players.
“I think there were a lot of good players lost [from] last year,” he said. “When you lose as many seniors as this conference lost, you’re going to see some kids step up that probably nobody really recognized that much last year.”
The Lady Trojans have been picked to finish third in the West division by the preseason SBC Coaches Poll but Foley said he’s careful not to put too much stock in preseason picks.
“I think North Texas has as much ability and athleticism as any team in our conference and they got them picked next to last or last,” he said. “I think, especially our side, it’s wide open.”
The team will open with three straight home games but they can’t be penciled in as wins because they will face Tulsa, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M. Foley said he believes it can only help, especially once they enter conference play.
“Our schedule is very tough,” he said. “We just wanna play and play good competition. I’ve always been one that [said], the better the competition, the better chance you’ve got of improving yourself.”
The Lady Trojans open their season with three straight home games. Their season opener is Nov. 11, against Tulsa. On Monday, Nov. 14, they will take on SMU and finish out the week against Texas A&M on Thursday, Nov. 17. All games will be played at the Jack Stephens Center.
For the men, the offseason has been rough, not only did they lose valuable seniors in Solomon Bozeman, Alex Garcia-Mendoza and Matt Mouzy, but they lost the services of sophomore Gus Leeper as he underwent surgery on his knee during the summer and will not play this season. Senior point guard D’Andre Williams also had a procedure done, but Shields said he was optimistic that Williams would be ready for the season opener at Tulsa on November 11.
“D’Andre was very important to us a year ago as our starting point guard,” he said. “He played extremely well down the stretch for us and we’re a different team when he’s out there with us.”
If there’s a theme in the Sun Belt this year, it’s how many new faces are in the league this year. The Trojans have followed suit, with nine new players on campus this year. Shields attributed the influx of new talent to the stable of coaches in the SBC.
“John Brady, at Arkansas State, coached in the Final Four,” he said. “I think every coach in our league has taken a team to the NCAA Tournament except Isaiah Thomas, and he’s one of the top 50 players of all time.”
In the past, the Trojans have historically been a team that was challenged by not being very tall. Shields recounted a phone call he received last year, where he learned the Trojans were ranked 341 out of 347 Division 1 teams as far as average team height. With the addition of 6-foot-8 freshman forward James White, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Will Neighbour and 6-foot-10 freshman forward Michael Javes, the Trojans will have more options as far as lineups go.
“We’re going to have a different look to us this year than we did a year ago,” he said.
One thing that will definitely be missed is the floor presence of Solomon Bozeman. When you hear players and coaches talk about Bozeman, one thing is constantly brought up; his work ethic. Bozeman hit the game-winning three-pointer in the SBC Championship game last season and his leadership is something that won’t be easily replaced.
Guy said he’s glad he was able to watch a player like Bozeman and learn what it takes to be successful on the court.
“Solo [Solomon Bozeman] was a guy who just went hard everyday,” Guy said. “And in everything he did, he tried to [make] progress and I just took on that role from him.”
Neighbour could prove to be a bit of a match-up problem for opponents who try to guard him with a slower or smaller defender, but he said he believes his versatility is his greatest strength. Does he like playing on the perimeter or would he prefer the paint?
“Either or for me, whatever the team needs in that situation,” he said. “I love to win, so, it makes no difference if this game I need to play outside or the other game I have to play inside.”
Shields said he’s still searching for that player who can get to the charity stripe when the offense is stagnant.
“I think the biggest concern of mine right now, is who’s going to be that guy or two that are able to consistently get to the foul line,” he said. “That’s something that Solomon was very good at for us. When we would have lapses on the offensive end, possessions without being able to score, you’ve got to be able to get it back to the paint, whether it be off the dribble or the pass and be able to get to the foul line.”
The Trojans will open their season on the road against Tulsa on Friday, Nov. 11. They return home to face Northwestern State on Sunday, Nov. 13 and IUPUI on Tuesday, Nov. 15