For the first time in its three-year run at Lakefront Arena, the Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament has a legitimate contender for an NCAA at-large berth.
Top seed Arkansas-Little Rock (27-4) may not need to win the event to go dancing. Picked fifth in the league’s preseason poll behind favored Louisiana-Lafayette, the Trojans surprised everyone but themselves by racing to the regular-season championship under first-year coach Chris Beard while tying for the fewest losses in the country.
First-round games start Wednesday, but Little Rock will not play until the Saturday semifinals along with No. 2 seed Louisiana-Monroe. Both teams were given double byes in an eight-team tournament format designed to protect regular-season achievers.
“We would like to build the kind of program at Little Rock where every year we are in the conversation for the NCAA tournament whether we win the automatic bid or not,” said Beard, who coached the past two years at Division II Angelo State and was an assistant to Bob Knight for 10 years at Texas Tech. “This season, I think we’re definitely a part of the conversation.”
Little Rock accomplished almost everything a small-conference team needs to do to get consideration from the selection committee. It went on the road and beat NCAA tournament hopefuls San Diego State (23-8) and Tulsa (20-10) in November. The Trojans’ only nonconference loss was to Texas Tech (19-11). They won the Sun Belt title outright with a two-game cushion at 17-3.
The league received a similar at-large bid in 2013. Middle Tennessee, which moved to Conference USA the following year, played in the opening-round First Four in Dayton, Ohio, after going 28-5, the same record as the Trojans will have if they lose in the final.
The plan for Little Rock, though, is to eliminate the suspense by winning the tournament.
Inheriting a team that had finished below .500 for two straight years, Beard transformed the roster with nine newcomers, but most of them were veteran transfers from Division I or junior-college programs. The top nine players in the rotation are upperclassmen, including first-team All-Sun Belt selection Josh Hagins, a senior guard from Bossier City (Airline High).
Their maturity allowed them to adapt quickly to Beard’s motion-based offense, a dramatic departure from the system former coach Steve Shields ran.
“You have to have guys with a feel for the game,” Hagins said. “You can’t have guys who don’t understand basketball. Even though it’s our first year, we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of basketball over the course of their career.”
Hagins, a four-year starter who has scored in double figures the past three, averages a team-best 13.0 points, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals while making 84.1 percent of his free throws. He even is tied for second with 4.0 rebounds.
“I think he’s one of the best players who’s ever played in the Sun Belt conference and our university,” Beard said. “The reason we won a championship and have a chance to do some more in March is he’s really matured. He’s been a great leader.”
The rest of the roster is stocked with complementary players who have excelled in Beard’s system. The Trojans make opponents work hard on every possession, ranking third nationally in scoring defense (59.8 points) and seventh in field-goal-percentage defense (.385).
That’s a good way to make fans forget about some sketchy history. Little Rock has made the NCAA tournament only once since 1990, but the Trojans appear poised to double that total in New Orleans even though they may have to go through fourth-seed UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe to get there.
“People are telling us we are only 80 minutes away, but if you don’t win the first 40, you are done right then and there,” Hagins said. “We have guys that are older, and we understand that.”