Basketball takes the court for 2012-13 season
Fans will have the opportunity to get their first looks at the men’s and women’s basketball teams at a Meet the Trojans event at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Jack Stephens Center, but The Forum offers its recap of last year and preview of players to look out for this year.
The 2012-13 UALR mens basketball team will likely waste no time introducing its freshman class to Division I basketball.
Eight freshmen and a total of 13 underclassmen are listed on the Trojan’s roster, providing intrigue to a primarily young team and inevitably forcing many of them to get their first taste of elite competition.
Last year, the Trojans finished with an overall record of 15-16, but were proficient throughout conference play en route to a 12-4 record. That mark was good enough for UALR to reach the Sun Belt Conference tournament as the No. 2 seed; but, the Trojans were toppled by the upset-minded No. 7 seed Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, in what was a disappointing end to a strong second half of the season.
For this year’s Trojans, the road back to the conference tournament may not be as easy as it has been in recent years.
In addition to the lack of upperclassmen, the Trojans will enter the regular season without three of its five starters from a year ago. Seniors D’Andre Williams and Courtney Jackson have graduated and Chuck Guy transferred to another university.
Williams was the team’s leading scorer last year, averaging 13.2 points per game, while Jackson led the team in rebounds, grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game.
With the loss of highly productive players, the Trojans will look to the preseason first team All-Sun Belt pick Will Neighbour to pick up some of the slack.
Neighbour, an England native, was a second team All-Sun Belt selection last year as he put together a successful campaign in his first year at UALR. A transfer from Daytona State College, Neighbour ranked second on the team in both scoring and rebounding. A shoulder injury hampered the 6-foot-10-inch junior forward for the majority of the season, forcing him to miss two games, but he should be at full strength for the start of the season.
Also coming off an injury sustained last year is redshirt sophomore Gus Leeper. The Austin, Texas native injured his knee during a summer pickup game, forcing him to sit out the entire 2011-12 season. Leeper was a pivotal part of the 2010-11 Sun Belt Championship team that reached the NCAA tournament. During the conference tournament Leeper started all four games as a freshman, while shooting 47 percent from the field.
Leeper is the only player on the current roster that was apart of the 2010 championship team.
Working to the advantage of the Trojans will be the mastermind behind six championships and one NCAA tournament appearance, head coach Steve Shields. En route to becoming the winningest coach in school history, Shields has led the Trojans to a 147-128 record over his nine-year tenure at the helm, including the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990.
In the annual preseason coaches’ poll, Shields and the Trojans have been picked to finish third in Sun Belt Conference West Division, behind North Texas and Arkansas State.
This year, Shields and his Trojans will participate in the Hoops for Hope Classic that will take them to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for two games. The Trojans will square off against Southern Methodist University at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 24 and will play either South Carolina or Missouri State on Nov. 25.
UALR will open its season against UT Martin at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 at the Jack Stephens Center.
Winning has been the norm for head coach Joe Foley and the UALR women’s basketball team over the last several years.
This year should be no different.
UALR comes into the 2012-13 season as winners of back-to-back Sun Belt Conference championships and have consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament to its credit.
Last year, the Trojans entered the tournament as the No. 14 seed, but were defeated by the No. 3 seed Delaware Blue Hens. Despite the loss, it was the first time in school history that the UALR women’s basketball program hosted the NCAA Championship first and second rounds at the Jack Stephens Center.
The hype will surround UALR again this year as the Trojans are the heavy favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference West Division. In the annual coaches’ poll, the Trojans captured 10 first place votes in the west division. In comparison, the second-place team received only one first-place vote.
The Trojans return three starters from last year, including a backcourt that is as deadly as any in the Sun Belt. Pacing the Trojans this year will be the dynamic duo of sophomore guard Taylor Gault and junior guard Taylor Ford.
Gault, an Arkansas native, is coming off an impressive freshman campaign where she started in 32 of the 33 games she played. As a freshman, Gault led the Trojans in scoring with 16 points per game and recorded a team-high 56 steals.
Her performance garnered the respect of teams throughout the conference as she was named the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
This year, Gault has been named to the preseason All-Sun Belt first team, the only UALR player to receive that honor.
Gault will accompany Ford in the backcourt who has had success of her own as a Trojan. Like Gault, Ford started in 32 of the 33 games she played.
A workhorse on the court, Ford led the Trojans in minutes played, minutes per game, and assists. Ford was also named to the preseason All-Sun Belt Second Team.
Joining Ford and Gault as returning starters will be senior forward Janette Merriex. She was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt third team as last year she led the Trojans last year in three-point field goals made.
Lethal from behind the arc, Merriex has the ability to spread the floor and knock down open jumpers.
While things appear to be in UALR’s favor, there are a few holes the Trojans will have to fill to capture its third consecutive Sun Belt championship. The Trojans will be without Marian Kursh and Britteni Williams; two seniors who have graduated made a significant impact in the frontcourt last season. Kursh was the team’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder last season.
Foley, the two-time Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year, will begin his tenth season at UALR with the hopes of improving on his 62.5 winning percentage as the Trojan’s head coach.
The Trojans will embark on what hopes to be another successful season when they travel to Tulsa, Okla. to take on the University of Tulsa. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.