Copyright 2006 Maddie's Daddy Productions
Chapter VIII: ChangesOne way or another, things had to change. The Trojans had already dropped one home conference game and had lost eight of their previous nine overall.
“Those types of things build character, they either make or break you,” Newell said. “The ones who can’t handle it, you’ve got to eliminate them. If you recruit the right kids, they’ll handle it.”
Newell hadn’t handled it very well either. He was constantly changing the lineup, giving one player 30 minutes of playing time one game, then sitting him out the next game. Other than Myers and Jackson, there was no consistency.
After the loss to Hardin-Simmons, Newell woke up at 4 o’clock the next morning, unable to sleep as he thought about the problems.
“I decided then that it was time to find out who the men were and who the boys were,” Newell said. “I told them it was like throwing them into a pit and seeing who would come out.”
Point guard was still the biggest problem. Chase wasn’t working out. Severn wasn’t ready to play and Campbell was inconsistent when give the opportunity. The only other option was Springer, who had showed potential in his only extended action of the season.
“I remember eating lunch one day downtown with Jerry West and Wally Hall. I told them I’m fixing to put Paul Springer at the point and we’re going to live or die with him,” Newell said. “We can’t keep changing around. We’re struggling and we’ve got too good a team.”
Springer had only played in six games all season. He played 16 minutes against Providence and had 2 points, 5 assists and 1 turnover. He played 24 minutes against Texas-San Antonio and had 2 points, 8 assists and 1 turnover. And he played 20 minutes against Northwestern State and had 2 points, 4 assists and 1 turnover.
Point guard wasn’t the only change Newell made. He reduced the roles of Covington and Kidd, playing a smaller lineup with Clarke, who wanted to play on the outside, primarily at the post position.
“Coach Newell was the type of guy that loved to shake the tree. He was going to play the best combination of players that fit his system,” Clarke said.
Newell knew what was best for Clarke.
“I can remember visiting him and telling him this was how it was going to be. If you don’t like it, tough,” Newell said. “When you’re winning, everybody is willing to buy into anything. The hardest thing is when you’re losing.”
Newell also looked at what he was doing. He switched from zone to a chest-to-chest, smothering man-to-man defense. And he simplified the offense, using a triangle set.
“Have you ever heard of the USC [football] term of running back right, running back left? That’s what we did with Myron Jackson,” Newell said. “We had Myron coming off screens right or left. Springer was the point and we had Pete at the top of the key. We had Paris and Michael down low on the block in a triangle. Myron would come off the screens and he could catch and shoot. Great shooter.”
Unbeknownst to Newell, the players were also contemplating changes. Some talked about walking out or quitting. But in a players’ only meeting inside Dittman’s apartment, Myers wasn’t hearing it.
“There were a couple of kids who were really grumbling that we’ve worked too hard, or I’m tired. Blah, blah, blah. Basically, they were just making excuses,” Dittman said. “I remember Peter standing up and saying, ‘Hey, y’all need to shut up about this because the man is right. We’ve got to do those things if we’re going to win.’ That was it. Pete got everybody moving forward in the right direction and really took over the leadership of the team from that point.”
That was Myers in a nutshell.
“Pete was our main man. It was his last year along with Clarke and Myron and Worthy,” Springer said. “He stepped up and took us to task. He was very vocal and told all the underclassmen we had to get it together.”
Newell was nervous, thinking the season might be slipping away.
“Maybe we’re greedy. But we need a win and we need one bad,” Newell said.
A crowd of 1,460 attended, including Gov. Bill Clinton, as UALR blew out Houston Baptist 88-67 to improve to 5-9. With the offense led by Springer and running through Jackson, things moved much more smoothly.. Jackson set UALR’s Division I record with 34 points, making 12 of 24 field goals and 10 of 11 free throws.
"It’s not that we didn’t have players to play [point guard]. It’s more about a guy sitting on the bench waiting for a turn. When Springer was called upon, he did his job,” Clarke said.
As Newell planned, Jackson was the focus.
“We’ve given Myron the green light. We’ve put in some new wrinkles into our offense, yesterday as a matter of fact, just for Myron,” Newell said. “The first option in our offense now is Myron. Option No. 2 is Myron. Option No. 3 is Myron.”
Springer played 39 minutes with six assists. He also played solid defense and Newell was sold.
“Paul is our point guard from now on, guys,” Newell said. “We’ll go as far as he can carry us.”
Thinking back, Newell isn’t sure which made the biggest difference. But things definitely came together in a hurry.
“Springer was really quick. Pete Myers was a really good player up top and he could go to the boards,” Newell said. “Once we did that, boom. That got us going. We got a win.”
Clarke was also starting to come on, flourishing in his new role. He continued to come off the bench in the January 11 home game against Northwestern State, a team that had already beaten the Trojans. This time, Clarke scored 31 points as UALR crushed the Demons 75-44 before a crowd of 1,536 at Statehouse.
“I think with Springer, everybody finally knew their role. Me, Pete, Myron and Ken Worthy, we were seniors and we used to tell the guys, you’re going to get one shat at that NCAA, one shot only,” Clarke said. “When you lose, it’s over. Especially when you’re a senior.”
Clarke made 14 of 20 field goals and had 16 rebounds. After entering the game with 15:56 to play in the first half, he didn’t come out the remainder of the game. Except when in foul trouble, he rarely sat down the remainder of the season.
Suddenly-rolling UALR had to travel for its next two home games because of other commitments at Statehouse Convention Center. They had played a TAAC Tournament game at Conway the previous year, but this time went to Pine Bluff Convention Center. Location didn’t matter.
Jackson hit an 18-foot jump shot and Myers and McCurdy hit clutch free throws -- all in the final minute -- as UALR defeated Georgia Southern 74-71 on January 16. Once again, UALR blew a big first half lead. But this time, UALR rallied for victory, improving to 7-9 on the season and 2-1 in TAAC play. Season ticket sales pushed the estimated attendance number to 1,500. But reports from the game indicate it was probably closer to 300 fans.
“It really is a disappointment,” Newell said. “It’s a shame. As good of basketball fans as Pine Bluff people are, they owe it to themselves to come out and watch a game in the beautiful arena they have. We’re going to quit playing there if people don’t start coming out.
Two days later, the senior class of Myers, Jackson, Clarke and Worthy was honored and the Trojans blew out Mercer 91-76 at Pine Bluff in front of a crowd announced at 1,733. Mercer came into the game with a 3-1 conference record but was no match for the Trojans’ senior foursome.
Jackson had 29 points, while Myers had 28. The four seniors combined for 85 of the 91. Springer, making his fourth consecutive start, had 10 assists while playing all 40 minutes as UALR improved to 8-9.
UALR had an opportunity to dig itself out of its 4-9 start with a January 21 game against Centenary at the Statehouse Convention Center.
The Trojans were spurty at times, but beat Centenary 98-70 before 3,196 fans to improve to 9-9 on the season, taking a one-game lead in the conference race with a 4-1 record.
“It was a hell of a ball game for about what, 30 minutes?” Centenary Coach Tommy Canterbury said. “You have to stop their dynamic runs. They live and die by their runs, both good ones and bad ones. They got too many runs on us.”
Springer had his second 10-assist game. Myers and Jackson each had 33 points. Clarke added 17, while Worthy had 11.
“It wasn’t like Paul came in and scored 30 points a night or anything, but he was really kind of that piece of the speed puzzle that we needed to get our fast break going and to be a little more aggressive defensively,” Dittman said. “Mike really got them believing in the system. He really got them believing in each other. And he made them tough enough to survive adversity.”
Newell’s following was growing, especially in the local media.
In the Arkansas Democrat, Hall wrote: “Eddie Sutton built his reputation as a coach who will beat you with deliberation. Nolan Richardson built his reputation as a coach who will wear your pockets out, slam the ball down your throat. Mike Newell is building his reputation as a coach who can do both. Newell is already the most feared coach in the TAAC. His name is popping up in places such as Lincoln, Nebraska; Boulder, Colorado; and Stillwater, Oklahoma.
For UALR, it was about to get much more adverse. UALR wouldn’t play another home game for more than a month.