“Every night before I go to bed I pray for my three daughters. Then I pray for our team to be unselfish,” Little Rock coach Chris Beard said Saturday following his team’s 66-44 demolition of DePaul.
Through eight games, Beard’s prayers have been answered. Little Rock holds an 8-0 record, making it one of eight schools still undefeated this season.
A month ago, such a start to the Beard era was fanciful with a first-year head coach and seven newcomers joining an unremarkable group of returning players. Yet Beard has brought together his mish mosh of returners, Division I transfers and junior college transfers to produce the best start in program history and a No. 80 KenPom ranking.
“Very quickly they’ve become one of the great stories in college basketball,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said, “because they’re new, they’ve got 10 new people (with three of them redshirting), and they play like grizzled and seasoned veterans.”
After a pair of successful seasons at Division II program Angelo State, Beard jumped for his first Division I head coaching position when former Trojans coach Steve Shields was fired in March. Little Rock had gone 13-18, finished No. 223 in KenPom and lost all but four players from that team.
Beard, a disciple of legendary Bob Knight, preached unselfishness upon entering the program, instituting the value everywhere from style of play to more mundane aspects.
“We don’t have the names of our players on the back of our jerseys. That’s by design,” Beard said. “We really want these guys to play for Little Rock. So far, in this early season, that’s exactly what they’re doing. The unselfishness of this team has been a real key to our early success.”
In terms of on-court production, the Trojans are as balanced as teams come. Seven players average more than five points per game.
Senior point guard Josh Hagins is the only player receiving more than 30 minutes per game of playing time, and he’s eclipsing that benchmark by a few tenths of a minute.
Eight of his teammates play more than 13 minutes per contest.
Little Rock has a starting five only in the term’s most literal sense. Hagins and his starting backcourt mate, senior Jermaine Ruttley, are among the top three on the team in minutes played. Only one other starter, forward Lis Shoshi, sees the floor for at least 18 minutes per game.
Junior guard Marcus Johnson Jr. comes off the bench, plays 27.1 minutes per night and leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.9 points. Fellow reserves Roger Woods and Mareik Isom receive more minutes than starting forward Maurius Hill and nearly as many as starting guard Kemy Osse.
“The identity of our team offensively is our depth,” Beard said. “We have 12 players that we think can play, and we trust all of them at any given time.”
Beard said he learned the “value of a sixth man” from Knight, who is second all-time among Division I coaches with 902 career wins.
“We want some of our better players coming off the bench,” Beard said, citing Johnson’s production as proof he and his staff practices what they preach. “The key to that is how unselfish our guys are.”
The chemical blend between starters and bench showed early in the second half when Hagins, getting ready to inbound after a timeout, looked the length of the floor to a blank-faced Isom on the left wing. Hagins barked at his teammate while clapping and both players grinned.
A few dribbles and passes later, Isom drilled a 3-pointer and sprinted back down the floor, yapping with his arms raised.
While the offense displays unselfishness through its balance between starters and reserves, the defense presents it through communication in its frantic, turnover-inducing style of play.
The Trojans double team constantly with active hands that disrupt an opponent’s sight and passing lanes. The constant chatter, typically led by Hagins but heard from the entire unit, keeps their rotations and switches superlative.
DePaul has three players who have shown the ability this season to carve up defenses in junior guard Billy Garrett Jr., senior forward Myke Henry and freshman wing Eli Cain. The trio found their usual gaps plugged up every time Saturday as the Little Rock defense had no glitches.
The performance against DePaul was no anomaly. The Trojans have the 34th-most efficient defense in the nation and force the second-most turnovers per 100 possessions, according to KenPom statistics. They are one of 10 teams holding opponents below 40 percent on 2-point shooting.
“A lot of (our) guys come from different places,” Beard said. “But right now, early, we’re really playing for each other. And the unselfishness of our team is something I’ve really enjoyed as the coach.”
A team often becomes an on-court duplicate of its coach.
As Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall paces the sidelines with a chip on his shoulder despite being one of the game’s most revered coaches, his Shockers teams adopted the motto “Play Angry” despite being a perennial Top 25 team.
Brad Stevens‘ teams at Butler replicated his quieter passion and always remained composed.
Little Rock follows its coach’s mold.
Beard is a humble man. He gives all the credit for Little Rock’s 8-0 start to his players, yet he does not think the Trojans’ record places them in a special part of the college basketball universe.
“I don’t think we’re any better than anybody else,” Beard said. “I’ve got so much respect for everybody in college basketball.”
Beard said the team has embraced that mentality as their own, focusing only on improving each day.
“It sounds kind of like a coaching cliche, but it’s just the truth,” Beard said.
Laying the foundation for success with chemistry and unselfishness is another cliche, but it’s the truth for Little Rock, too.