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NCAA Tournament 2017: The Troy Trojans have completed the ultimate turnaround

The Sun Belt champs won just nine games last year

NCAA Basketball: Troy at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Troy Trojans won a grand total of four Sun Belt Conference games and floundered to a last-place finish and a sixth-straight losing season at 9-22.

This year, with a 17-14 regular season mark and eight wins in their final 12 Sun Belt contests, Phil Cunningham’s Trojans entered the Sun Belt Tournament as the 6 seed, facing a steep challenge of having to win four games in five days to somehow find their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Thanks to the performances from the dynamic duo of Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado, they marched on through to Sunday’s championship game against Texas State with the chance to make the ultimate turnaround possible.

Varnado scored 10 of the final 12 points in the last four minutes to help the Trojans finish off the Bobcats, 59-53, and clinch their first bid to the NCAA Tournament in 14 years.

Looking at the body of work for the Trojans on the season, perhaps this group was poised to burst onto the scene when it mattered the most.

11 of the Trojans’ 14 losses came by six points or less, with seven of those coming in conference play.

In the back end of their non-conference slate, the Trojans took part in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic and traveled to USC and Wyoming, and had chances in each contest to score big road wins.

Troy held a 77-74 lead with 1:17 remaining in Los Angeles, but USC scored the final eight points to pull out an 82-77 victory on Dec. 17.

Two days later, the Trojans waited through a two-hour power outage in the middle of the first half, but found themselves leading Wyoming by 10 points with 17 minutes to go, and led by a point with 3:13 remaining, before again faltering down the stretch. The Cowboys closed the game out on an 11-4 run to win 72-66.

Troy then went to Las Vegas and won its final two contests over Cornell and Chicago State to build momentum heading into conference play.

The Trojans led by five points with 1:57 to go in their conference opener at arch-rival South Alabama but failed to seal the deal, falling 76-75.

After another tight loss on the road at Georgia Southern, the Trojans responded with a huge road victory at Georgia State and an impressive 22-point beatdown of preseason favorite UT-Arlington. In that game, Person went off for a career-high 39 points and 10 threes, showing that this club was capable of competing with the league’s best.

Four more close defeats in the next six games followed — a four-point loss to Texas State, a two-point loss to Arkansas State, a six-point loss to Georgia State, and another loss to South Alabama.

From there, the Trojans closed the year out strong, with a 6-2 stretch that carried the Trojans to their above .500 record, which they hadn't accomplished since their 2009-10 NIT season.

A more balanced roster that included four returning starters in Person, Varnado, Daniel Peace and Jeremy Hollimon got a big boost with graduate transfer swingman Devon Walker arriving from Florida.

Guard Kevin Baker, small forward Juan Davis Jr., and big man Alex Hicks also arrived to provide depth that the Trojans had struggled with in past seasons.

The Trojans’ strength lies in their offensive efficiency and perimeter shooting, with Person, Hollimon, and Davis Jr. all shooting over 40 percent from distance.

Troy is ranked 78th in the KenPom ratings for offensive efficiency, and averages 79 points per game, which ranked second in the Sun Belt.

Length in the front court is a concern as Davis Jr. and Hicks are the only rotation players at 6’8, with Varnado undersized at 6’6 in the post. But Varnado and Hicks were effective at protecting the rim throughout the conference tournament and Varnado leads the conference in blocked shots with 49.

The pieces were there for Troy to make the type of jump that it accomplished, and the Trojans made it happen by showing the consistency when it mattered most. Their reward is a meeting with Duke in a 2-15 matchup in Greenville, South Carolina on Friday.

The Blue Devils are playing some of the best basketball of the season, with an impressive performance in the ACC Tournament, knocking off North Carolina in the semifinals and Notre Dame in the championship game Saturday night.

Duke boasts a surplus of talent with freshman Jayson Tatum, sophomore Luke Kennard, junior Grayson Allen and senior Amile Jefferson spearheading Mike Krzyzewski’s club.

With the journey that the Troy basketball program has taken to get to this point, the Blue Devils are just another obstacle, albeit a daunting one. Regardless, the Trojans have come a long way.