The last time the University of Arkansas-Little Rock won a NCAA tournament game, the notion of March Madness was still in its infancy. This was in 1986, a year after Villanova's run to the national championship as a No. 8 seed, the second season of the tournament's expansion to a 64-team bracket that engendered a modern era fraught with chaos. The numerical weight of the first-round upset was only just beginning to be understood.
Little Rock entered the 1986 tournament as a No. 14 seed, and was matched up with third-seeded Notre Dame, then ranked No. 10 in the country. The Trojans brought roughly 100 fans with them to the Metrodome in Minneapolis on March 14, where they became one of the first No. 14 seeds to upset a No. 3 in the NCAA tournament (the other, Cleveland State, would knock off Indiana that same day). "Everybody kept talking about Cinderella," Paul Springer, a freshman point guard on that team, recently told Arkansas Online. "We didn't know what that word meant."
The Trojans have fielded decent to very good basketball teams in the ensuing years—Derek Fisher was the Sun Belt player of the year at UALR in 1996; they've twice qualified for the NCAA tournament but lost both times. Now, 30 years later, this may finally be the year Little Rock becomes the Cinderella again.
Under first-year coach Chris Beard, a former assistant at Texas Tech under Bobby Knight, the Trojans have spent much of the season slowly ascending Ken Pomeroy's advanced ratings chart, with early-season road victories over San Diego State, East Carolina, Tulsa, and DePaul. They were No. 41 as of Thursday, when a 86-82 loss at Louisiana-Monroe brought their record to 21-3. A few more wins, and the Trojans may prove deserving of an at-large NCAA tournament bid, even if they wind up losing in the Sun Belt tournament and fail to secure an automatic one.
It has become clear that this team is no fluke: from the moment they scored a 49-43 win over San Diego State in November, the Trojans have been one of the most proficient defensive teams in the nation. They lead the country in scoring defense, they are in the top five in field-goal percentage defense, and they've done it all with a hybrid of new recruits, transfers, and holdovers assembled in mere weeks after Beard was hired to replace former coach Steve Shields in April.
"In our sport, its always difficult [to assemble a roster], but the month of April is when a lot of things pop," Beard told VICE Sports by phone this week. "We reached out to a lot of guys who had already committed to other schools."
In the end, Beard wound up bringing in 10 of his own players, in addition to the seven holdovers from last season's roster. Beard and his staff all have either played or coached at the junior college level, and they recruited several junior-college players. They also unearthed a pair of transfers from other Division I schools (who are sitting out this season), as well as a graduate transfer from Wake Forest. Another transfer from Florida A&M, guard Jermaine Ruttley, was eligible to play immediately since A&M had fallen below the NCAA's Academic Percentage Rate requirements. Beard complements those new additions with a handful of players who had come up through the program like guard Josh Hagins, who is averaging 12 points and nearly five assists per game.
As the roster came together over the summer, Beard saw a team that could at least be competitive in the Sun Belt. He and his staff, as it turned out, were almost entirely oriented toward defense—so much so, Beard says, that "we have a hard time getting to offense every day during practice. We'll have a two-hour practice and we'll get to an hour-forty-five and realize we haven't even gotten to offense yet."
This is how a team that puts up barely 70 points per game—a team with only two players scoring in double-figures—is winning by an average of 13 points per content. And this is what could make the Trojans such a difficult out if they do get to the tournament. Opponents are shooting under 40 percent against them overall, and barely 30 percent against them from three-point range. Tough defense has generated momentum at Little Rock: a team that drew barely a thousand fans for Beard's first home game as head coach may soon sell out its 5,600-seat arena. The Trojans are one of only a handful of Division I teams in a state laden with high-school and AAU basketball talent. If they can make a run this season, Beard believes it could kick-start an extended period of success.
Every mid-major program in Division I has the same dream: to ascend to the level of Wichita State or Gonzaga or Xavier, to become a perennial tournament team. For Beard, that small piece of tournament history Little Rock carved out 30 years ago is a large part of what drew him to the job in the first place. At his introductory press conference, he already envisioned the Trojans as one of those teams who would sit together in a room on Selection Sunday and wait to see where they would play. It happened back in 1986, he figures, so it can happen again. Maybe even sooner than anyone could have anticipated.
"Coach Knight always said with these coaching jobs, it's not rocket science," Beard said. "You have to ask if it's been done before. Otherwise you're trying to do something no one's ever done. We're trying to restore what's been done here before. We want to turn this into a situation where we're part of the [tournament] conversation every year. But it has to start somewhere."