The new Sun Belt Conference makes its basketball debut tonight as UALR travels to Texas State in San Marcos, Texas, for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
Texas State, Texas-Arlington and Georgia State are the new Sun Belt members this year. They’ll enter a conference with a different setup. For the first time in a decade and a half, there are no divisions. That means all 10 teams lumped together.
We should find out pretty quickly if UALR figures to be a player in this new setup.
Much like UALR (5-7), Texas State (4-9) struggled in nonconference play. UALR’s struggles were mostly attributed to the schedule. That will no longer be an excuse starting tonight. The road weary Trojans have won just once in six road games this season.
But a win tonight and/or Saturday against Texas-Arlington, would put UALR in prime position to make an early move in the standings. That is exactly what UALR did during the 2011-2012 season.
UALR was 4-9 going into the Sun Belt opener as a heavy underdog at North Texas. UALR pulled off a 69-66 victory. Two nights later, UALR, once again as a heavy underdog, upset Denver to start 2-0. UALR won its first five conference games en route to a division championship.
The only player on the current roster who played in those two road games was senior Will Neighbour, who was injured in the Denver game. Neighbour leads UALR in scoring and rebounding this season.
It will be interesting to see what the UALR rotation looks like tonight. With junior J.T. Thomas still injured, UALR Coach Steve Shields went exclusively with junior DeVonte Smith and sophomore Josh Hagins at point guard and junior Ben Dillard and sophomore Kemy Osse exclusively at the shooting guard. That meant Smith and Hagins didn’t play any minutes on the court at the same time. Was that a one-time experiment or will we see more of it tonight?
UALR junior point guard J.T. Thomas remains out. Freshman post Andrew Poulter returned from injury on Monday, playing his first minutes of the season against Grambling.
It will be a sort of homecoming this week for several Trojans, including Coach Steve Shields who is from Waco, Texas. UALR plays at San Marcos, Texas, on Thursday and Arlington, Texas, on Saturday. Other Texans on the roster include junior Ben Dillard (Frisco), junior Gus Leeper (Austin), freshman Mareik Isom (Austin) and freshman Andrew Poulter (New Braunfels).
KEYS TO VICTORY
Jump the gun: Texas State hasn’t beaten a NCAA Divison I team at home this season. UALR needs to get off to a solid start tonight.
15 for Gus: We’d like to see 15 minutes from senior Gus Leeper tonight. UALR’s plus/minus goes up when he’s in the game and the Trojans will need to score tonight. UALR Coach Steve Shields and Texas State Coach Danny Kaspar are both defensive-minded coaches.
White Knight: We’ve seen major improvement from sophomore James White of late. Mostly it’s come because he’s stayed out of foul trouble and in the game. UALR needs him in the game tonight.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
UALR is a 3-point underdog in Las Vegas.