LITTLE ROCK - With the start of the 2012-13 season just two weeks away, UALR head men's basketball coach Steve Shields took some time to provide an update on the status of his squad heading into the team's first closed scrimmage on Saturday. Coming off a Sun Belt Conference West Division Championship in 2011-12, the Trojans were picked to finish third in the West Division in the league's annual preseason poll with junior Will Neighbour earning preseason First Team All-SBC honors.
"As excited as we were to have everyone cleared medically for the start of practice on October 12, unfortunately we haven't been able to keep things that way. With our ninth practice on Monday, we only had 10 of our 17 guys available to participate. Aside from various bumps and bruises, two of our guys were out because of food poisoning. We can hardly use those absences as an excuse though. Every team in the country has injuries and other forms of adversity it has to deal with throughout the year. We just have to work through it and do the best we can to prepare our guys for the season ahead.
Our young guys continue to get better each and every day, and that kind of development is what you want to see with a young team. The thing I am trying to stress to these guys more than anything else, is to raise the overall level of effort and intensity that we bring to the floor on an everyday basis. When you have six true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, the bulk of your team hasn't been through a season and seen what it takes to compete in Division I basketball. They have no idea what it takes to succeed at this level, so it's up to us to stress that to them at every opportunity we get.
To take that a step further, our pace also needs to improve. It hasn't been where we need it to be, and that is apparent in the little things like our transition after made baskets, pushing the ball up the floor as soon as possible, and our transition defense. If a play doesn't go the way it should, we can't drop our heads and get hung up in our mistakes. We need to turn the page and move on to the next play. We also need to start communicating better on the defensive end. There has to be constant communication to become a solid defensive team and, like most young teams, we don't talk as much as we need to.
It's no surprise to me with so many new guys, but we have to continue to get better every day on the defensive end. We are light years away from where we need to be in that regard, but we knew that coming in. I've been encouraged by their enthusiasm to get better though. Every team's journey is different, and there is a natural progression as you advance over the course of the season from the non-conference to the conference season. Hopefully our journey this year progresses faster than it did last year, but as always the focus is to be at our best in February and March leading into the Sun Belt Tournament. I feel certain that this year's journey will continue to get better as we go through these first couple months, but we also won't have nearly as long to get to where we want to be with conference play starting on Nov. 29 against Troy. Last year we didn't open Sun Belt play until Dec. 29 at North Texas, so now you're talking about having our guys ready for conference games a full month early. That's one of the reasons I'm harping more and more about our pace, because we don't have the luxury of waiting until the end of December to have them ready for the Sun Belt season.
I think our fans will really be excited with what they're going to see from our returning guys. Coach John Barron has done a remarkable job with all of our guys, but James White, in particular, is someone who has really progressed from last season. As athletic as he is, coming out of high school we felt like he needed to improve his jumper to be a more complete player. He's really put the time in to not only become a better shooter, but also added some size and strength so that he'll be able to compete in the Sun Belt.
Michael Javes heads into his sophomore season in the best shape he has been in since he got here. Now it is up to us to utilize his strengths, and one of those is his ability to run the floor. Mike has good speed for a post player and that can open up the floor for our guards. I've shown Mike some clips of Darius Eason and Jamal Holden. They were long, athletic big men who could really run and put pressure on an opposing team's defensive transition.
With Mike being in such good shape, what we have to work on is getting him into the habit of consistently running, which opens up space for our point guards. Every player and every team in the country says they want to run, but it is something that is difficult to do from a conditioning and mental standpoint. I think it is an important part of the game, because you have to try and get some easy baskets in transition to have some success. You can't expect your guys to just play against a set five every time down the floor.
Ben Dillard and Taggart Lockhart are also in the best shape of their careers entering their sophomore years. With such a young team, these guys are considered veterans on this year's team with just one season of action under their belts. They lead every day through their actions and work ethic, but we need them to be more vocal. They both saw a good amount of action as true freshmen, so even though they're just sophomores, they've earned the right to be more vocal.
Will Neighbour wasn't cleared for contact until a week ago, but still managed to have a great offseason with coach Barron. His body type is of the kind that he's never going to be able to put on a lot of bulk, but he has really been able to add strength through his work in the weight room. He didn't shoot the ball the way we know he can during our first few practices, but that's understandable when you look at the fact that he hasn't done anything live for quite a while. That's not something we're worried about. That will come. It's just a matter of getting him enough reps on the floor to get the rust off. Unfortunately he sprained his ankle last Friday and is out again. He's been rehabbing with our head athletic trainer Michael Switlik though, and we expect to have him back real soon.
We were all disappointed that we didn't have Gus Leeper last year, but he made the most of his situation and had a great redshirt year with coach Barron. He is so much more physical than he was two years ago. Our people will see a noticeable difference in his body, which will help him defending in the post and playing in the lane.
The season is getting closer by the day. Mark your calendars to join us at the Jack Stephens Center on Thursday, Nov. 1 for the annual Meet the Trojans event. Hope to see everyone there."