The Bright Future of Little Rock Basketball

About a month ago when this Trojan basketball team felt like our little secret, before the ESPN interviews, Sports Illustrated features, and most importantly before 99% of people heard the name Josh Hagins he and I sat down for an interview about being raised in Little Rock and his journey to become the face of the team. In that interview Hagins repeated two things multiple times. He wanted to do something for Little Rock that no one would ever forget, and he felt deeply that this was just the beginning of something bigger.

Tonight the Trojans walked away from the court in the second round of the NCAA tournament, something that has only happened once before in the history of the program. It was not a victory, but the sweat, blood, and a lot of tears that dropped on that court in Denver tonight are already producing strong roots for the future of the program.

The night before I interviewed Josh the Trojans honored the 1986 team at halftime. That group of Trojans was the last to make it past the first round in the tournament. That group, who finished the season 23-11, sparked a (at the time) program best 26 win season the following year, and was a series of four consecutive postseason tournament appearances. It was the only time in program history that the school has enjoyed such success, and very likely planted the seed for Derek Fisher’s desire to be a Trojan.

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“My main thing throughout the course of sports has been to do something that people can’t forget.” – Josh Hagins

This year’s team exceeded that program record, winning 30 games for the first time not only in school history, but it is the first time any team has done that in the Sun Belt conference. The team broke both single game and season attendance records and made thousands of new fan who plan to pack the seats again next year.

No one will ever forget this year. Most importantly though, this year is a beginning, not an end.

Coach Chris Beard took a ragtag group of basketball players to this level. Only four seniors, with only Hagins having any time as a starter heading into the season. Daniel Green rarely saw playing time, leaving Hagins, Roger Woods, and Jermaine Ruttley as the true senior leaders of the team. Throughout the course of the season the three of them frequently inspired and pushed the team to greatness. Hagin’s leadership ability especially will be missed.

Josh, Woods, and Ruttley however planted the seeds for a team that will be absolutely loaded and playing strong together from the start. The Trojans next year will return with nine (yes 9!) seniors led by Marcus Johnson, Jalen Jackson, Lis Soshi, Mareik Isom, Stetson Billings, and Kemy Osse who have all seen playing time, along with a number of starts.

Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season, and could easily be the next big Trojan star. Soshi really started to come into his own midway through the season, showing the potential to be a powerful big that the team desperately needs with a strong jump shot that creates matchup problems.

Also entering next year is Dayshawn Watkins, a redshirt junior guard from North Little Rock who transferred in from Florida State and had to set out this year. A lot of the current players, including Hagins, have been high on Watkins throughout our conversations this season. He should add a great dynamic with senior level leadership. Also coming in is Oliver Black transferring from Mississippi State, who at 6-9 adds some much-needed height to the team.

The biggest boost though are the players unseen. The dramatic rise in visibility will no doubt attract a number of quality recruits to the program. The previous headliner team in the state has struggled to find their way, including what seems to be an all time low this year. The prospect of prolonged success in Little Rock has to be appealing, and a smart player would realize that his ability to experience success and make a mark is more likely in Little Rock than on the hill right now.

“I love where this program is headed. Especially with coach beard and the staff, the sky’s the limit.” – Josh Hagins

Little Rock is a program with no limits. I believe coach Beard realizes the potential to do something special, to build a program into the next Gonzaga, and settles into a long-term building cycle with Little Rock. This year should not be a once in every 20 year occurrence, but something the fans expect every year. The potential is there. The athletic department led by director Chasse Conque give me confidence to believe that they are committed to long-term success.

Thanks to Josh, Roger, Jermaine and all the other Trojans who made this year memorable, but I believe even more success is around the corner. The thing this team did to create a memorable, lasting impression was not winning in the tournament. It was laying a foundation for what comes next.

It is a great time to be a Trojan.

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The Bright Future of Little Rock Basketball