Headed into Saturday night’s game at DePaul, UALR had already collected wins over quality teams such as San Diego State and Tulsa on its way to a perfect 7-0 start.
Now, the Trojans can add a Big East team to the list.
UALR beat DePaul 66-44, improving the best start in program history to 8-0 under first-year head coach Chris Beard.
So what’s the secret to UALR’s success? Taking it one game at a time, says Beard.
“It sounds like a coaching cliché, but it’s just the truth,” Beard said, via LRTrojans.com, after the Trojans’ win. “We talk a lot about the process. We never talk about anything but the next game. We never talk about anything but trying to improve that day. When you do that, the byproduct can be winning.”
The Trojans overcame a tough shooting night — they shot just 40 percent from the field, including 6 of 20 from deep — with good free throw shooting and defense, two areas where the Trojans have excelled so far this season.
Entering Saturday’s game, UALR ranked No. 2 nationally in free throw percentage (.815) and fifth in turnover margin (6.4). Against DePaul, the Trojans made 16 of 20 from the charity stripe, and forced 20 DePaul turnovers. The Trojans had a plus-11 turnover margin for the game.
What makes UALR so good is its ability to force turnovers while not turning the ball over itself. The Trojans rank 12th nationally in turnovers forced (17.75 per game) and 27th in turnovers committed (10.8), which explains their outstanding turnover margin.
And if opponents don’t turn the ball over, they still have a hard time scoring — UALR leads the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 53.3 ppg.
What makes UALR so good is its defense, but what makes it potentially great is its ability to close out games by making free throws. Because the Trojans have committed to defense and slowing down the game, it has been involved in several low-scoring, close games this seasons. The Trojans have won these games by making free throws when they needed to, while their opponents haven’t.
Looking at the schedule, the Trojans have a good chance to enter conference play undefeated. They’ll face two opponents they should beat in Central Arkansas and Northern Arizona, before traveling to Lubbock, Texas for a Dec. 22 matchup against Texas Tech. If the Trojans can win the next three, they’ll be 11-0 and likely in the Top 25 when they open conference play at South Alabama on Dec. 30.
The question then would be how long the Trojans could keep their streak going. They have two tough games in the same week on Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 against two of the SunBelt’s best teams — Louisiana Lafayette and Louisiana Monroe.
The Trojans would likely pick up their first loss in one of those contests, but not before they had already played themselves firmly into contention for an at-large bid if they weren’t to win the conference tournament. However, if they were somehow able to escape both matchups with victories, it could realistically be late January — when the team faces UT-Arlington (away) and Georgia State (home) — before the Trojans lost a game.
But Beard and the Trojans aren’t looking ahead on the schedule, and neither should anyone else. Right now, Trojan fans should just be appreciating the team’s hot start. This team is exceeding all expectations, and barring a meltdown for the ages, will be in the NCAA Tournament come March, either as the SunBelt’s auto-bid or as an at-large selection.
As long as UALR continues to take it one game at a time — focusing on defense, taking care of the ball, and making free throws — it will be able to compete with anyone in the country, making it a dangerous team come time for March Madness.