Head coach Keith Richard came to Louisiana-Monroe in 2010, 19 years removed from his playing days at his alma mater (then called Northeast Louisiana).
But his task when he came back appeared so great that it overshadowed the appeal of a homecoming.
He was asked to rebuild a once-respectable program from the bottom of the barrel. Previous coach Orlando Early resigned after the 2009-10 season and left the Warhawk program in shambles. A 712 APR rating for the season meant that scholarships were reduced, practice time slashed, and non-conference games limited.
Richard's first year saw only five returning players from the previous season, and the rest of the roster consisted of junior college transfers and freshmen. That team went 7-24. The next two years on the court were even worse, as the team won seven games combined.
However, while the team struggled on the court, the tide was turning behind the scenes.
The university created a task force to restore order academically for the Warhawk men's basketball program. A group of educators and employees within the university set plans for how the program used its time on and off the court. Study hall requirements and screenings for prospective recruits aided Richard to ensure his players and future Warhawks were doing the things necessary to be contributors on the court and achieve success off of it.
Richard was rewarded for these efforts with a contract extension in 2012. His program won the Sun Belt's academic award, and was one of only 21 men's basketball programs in Division I to have over a 3.0 cumulative grade point average in the 2012-13 season. Although ULM only had a 10-17 record in 2013-14, the APR sanctions were lifted at the end of the year.
All scholarships were restored for Richard to work with the following year, and the program was ready to return to prominence.
The 2014-15 season saw ULM win 14 conference games, and its 24 total wins was its most in 13 years. The Warhawks tied for second in the Sun Belt regular-season race after being picked sixth in the preseason poll that year. A runner-up finish to Loyola-Chicago in the CBI signified that ULM basketball was officially back on track.
A year ago, the Warhawks fell to Arkansas-Little Rock in the Sun Belt Tournament final, 70-50, but earned a berth in the CIT where they lost to Furman, 58-57. A 20-14 record to go along with 15 conference victories and an undefeated record at home (13-0) showed the program's stability to go toe-to-toe with the best of the Sun Belt.
Heavy losses due to graduation will hit the Warhawks hard in the 2016-17 campaign. Majok Deng departs after posting 18.4 points and seven rebounds a night, which earned him first-team Sun Belt honors. Justin Roberson earned conference Defensive Player of the Year, and put up 14.5 points per game to go along with 4.7 rebounds. Key contributors Jamaal Samuel (9.4 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game) and DeMondre Harvey (7.8 ppg., 5.6 rbs.) also depart.
Senior point guard Nick Coppola (10.9 ppg., 5.3 assists per game), who already holds the career assists record for the program, returns to provide valuable experience and leadership for the Warhawks. Other than forward Travis Munnings, who posted a solid freshman campaign with 7.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, the roster looks similar to Richard's first season at ULM with little returning Division I experience.
However, this time the program is on much better footing for a rebuild. Recruiting is no longer an issue, and for high school seniors, the possibility of postseason play has again made ULM appealing.
Player turnover happens in college basketball. Take care of things in-house and the rebuild becomes much easier.