LITTLE ROCK - The UALR men's basketball team will conduct its first official practice of the 2012-13 season on Friday at 5 p.m. at the Jack Stephens Center. Friday's practice will be open to the public, giving Trojan fans their first glance at this year's squad. All other practices will be closed this season, with the annual Meet The Trojans event on Nov. 1 being the lone exception.
Steve Shields enters his 10th season as head coach at UALR with two starters back off last year's Sun Belt Conference West Division Championship team in junior Will Neighbour and sophomore Michael Javes. Last year's division championship was the fifth in nine years under Shields, giving him more division titles than any other Sun Belt program during his tenure.
A Second Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2011-12, Neighbour is the team's top returning scorer (10.5 ppg) and rebounder (5.3 rpg) from a year ago. He is joined by returning lettermen Ben Dillard and Taggart Lockhart, as well as two players who sat out the 2011-12 season as medical redshirts in Gus Leeper and James White. Leeper played in 29 games as a true freshman during the 2010-11 season, starting eight of the team's final nine contests as UALR earned a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. A total of nine newcomers round out UALR's 2012-13 roster, six of which are true freshmen.
With the start of official practice just one day away, Shields took some time to provide an update on the status of his team:
"We are eager to get started on Friday. We've been able to work with the guys in a limited capacity since the school year began, but now you're looking at the two hours a week as a team and eight total hours with conditioning, jumping up to 20 hours a week. The grind really begins Friday, for the new guys especially, but that gives us a lot more time to work with and develop these players.
We're also excited to be almost back to full strength as official practice begins. We've had a couple of guys sidelined for the last month or so with various injuries. Most of them had a target date to be cleared to return to practice by Friday, and fortunately nearly all of them have met that goal.
When Will (Neighbour) had surgery on his shoulder the goal all along was to get him back by mid-October, and he was cleared by our team doctor on Tuesday. Ben (Dillard) had been hampered by a knee injury and actually returned to action quicker than I had expected. Mareik (Isom) has been very limited since the start of the school year, but was cleared Tuesday afternoon to start easing back into things. The only guys yet to be cleared are Gus Leeper and Casey Wilmath. The target date for Gus' return from his stress fracture has been mid-October, and he goes back to the doctor on Friday to see where he is at in his recovery. Casey has been dealing with some nagging foot problems, but may be able to practice Friday as well.
The biggest thing with these guys being out for so long, was that they'll all take time to readjust and get their legs under them. It will take some time to get them where they need to be from a conditioning standpoint, but it is encouraging to get them going again. Even though he wasn't able to practice because of his shoulder, Will was still able to take part in conditioning so he won't have as far to go as some of the other guys.
Tuesday we used our two hours of team activity to go through a mini-practice, so the new guys would have a better idea of what to expect on Friday. Our workout Tuesday went well, but the thing we tried to stress to the team is that we're just one month away from the opener against UT Martin on Nov. 9, and we have a lot of stuff to implement in very short amount of time.
Having Will and Ben back on the floor Tuesday, gave us two more guys who are familiar with what's going on and can help bring along the nine new players. Prior to Tuesday's workout, we'd been doing some situational stuff and 5-on-5 work in practice, and of those 10 guys on the floor you might have had seven newcomers. Everything goes at a snail's pace from a teaching standpoint in that case, especially if you don't have veterans to help the new guys out. And when we talk about 'veterans' this year, we're talking about guys with only one year of experience under their belts. Gus is the only guy who has been with us for more than one season, but he only has one year of playing experience under his belt. There's no Courtney Jackson entering his fourth year with the program on this year's team. At the same time though, it's exciting to think about what's in store for this team in the future.
Like I said earlier, we're anxious to get started on Friday. We'll practice four-straight days before taking a day off on Tuesday. There's a lot of work to get done, but we're looking forward to it."