LITTLE ROCK – The UALR men’s basketball team held its first practice of the 2013-14 season Monday night at the Jack Stephens Center. The Trojans return eight lettermen and four starters from a team that won 17 games and tied a Jack Stephens Center record with 13 home victories in the 2012-13 season.
“I thought we had good energy and good enthusiasm,” said head coach Steve Shields after practice. “You’re always going to have good energy and enthusiasm after practice number one, but we’re really concerned with how it goes on practice number 12 and practice number 25, if the same energy and enthusiasm are there.”
This season marks the first in which teams are able to begin practice 42 days prior to their first game. UALR opens its season against North Florida on Nov. 11 at the Jack Stephens Center, kicking off one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. The Trojans’ slate includes dates at Florida (Nov. 16), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 18), Southern (Nov. 22), Oklahoma (Nov. 29), Tulsa (Dec. 7) and Memphis (Dec. 13) before Sun Belt Conference play begins in January.
Shields begins his 11th season at the reins of the UALR program as the winningest active coach in the Sun Belt. Shields boasts more league wins (81) and a higher winning percentage in conference play (.614) than any other active coach.
Playing with one of the youngest rosters in the country in 2012-13, UALR finished with a 17-15 overall record and an 11-9 mark in conference play. Of the 20 youngest teams in the country last season, UALR was one of just four (along with Michigan, Kentucky and Hartford) to finish above .500 in conference play, and one of just six to finish above .500 overall (along with Michigan, Kentucky, Hartford, Charlotte and St. John’s).
Seniors Leroy Isler and Will Neighbour lead a group of eight returning lettermen for the Trojans.
Isler became one of UALR’s most consistent and effective players in his first season with the team, averaging 7.4 points and 3.3 rebounds while leading the team and ranking 12th in the Sun Belt with 1.3 steals per game. He started 28 of 32 games as a junior, thanks in large part to his emergence as the Trojans’ top perimeter defender.
Neighbour enters his senior season at UALR with the chance to become the first player in program history to be a three-time All-Sun Belt honoree. After collecting Second Team All-Sun Belt honors as a sophomore in 2011-12, Neighbour was named Third Team All-Sun Belt in 2012-13. As a junior, he led UALR in scoring (10.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg) while blocking 32 shots and totaling 39 steals. The Grayshott, England, native ranked fifth in the Sun Belt in rebounding and 12th in the league in field goal percentage (44.2 percent).
“I worked on everything over the summer: my strength, (my game) in the post, and obviously my shot outside as well,” explained Neighbour. “My inside-out game is getting better so I feel real good about this year.”
For more on the Trojans and their practices leading up to the season opener on Nov. 11, be sure to read SteveShields.com as UALR’s head coach will be providing regular updates on the program. UALRTrojans.com will also be profiling each player on the Trojans’ roster, beginning tomorrow with freshman Maurius Hill.