In one of the great turnarounds in college basketball this season, the Troy Trojans won four games in five days in the Sun Belt Conference tournament to earn the program’s second berth into the NCAA Tournament.
After going 9-22 last season, head coach Phil Cunningham returned four starters, including the potent combination of guard Wesley Person and forward Jordon Varnado, and added graduate transfer swingman Devon Walker from Florida for the 2016-17 season.
Losing 11 games by six points or fewer heading into the conference tournament, the Trojans closed the regular season strong, winning six of their last eight games. Troy took down Appalachian State in the first round before upsetting third-seeded Georgia Southern and second-seeded Georgia State. In the title game, they defeated Texas State to enter the NCAA Tournament with a 22-14 record — their first winning season in seven years.
The Trojans’ reward is a meeting with Duke in a 2-15 matchup in Greenville, South Carolina on Friday. It’s a daunting challenge, but by now, the team knows that it is playing with house money and can give the Blue Devils its best shot to score another upset victory.
How they can win
The Trojans can score at an efficient rate with multiple options across the floor for Cunningham to rely on.
It all starts with Varnado, an undersized forward at 6’6 who can score in many ways. Varnado averaged 16.5 points per game, with most of his action based around the rim, where he excels at finishing over length. He can hit from the outside at 38 percent in 72 attempts, but does a lot of work getting to the foul line, where he leads the Trojans in attempts at 165 and shoots 70 percent.
Person has had stretches where he can catch fire from the perimeter, and is an excellent foul shooter himself at 82 percent. He scored 39 points on the strength of 10 threes against UT-Arlington earlier in the season, and in the conference tournament, knocked down 15 out of 26, while averaging 21.8 points in the four games.
Jeremy Hollimon has come on strong, despite coming off the bench this season after playing a starting role last year. The senior has scored in double figures in seven of his last eight games, and averaged 15.5 points during the conference tournament.
Walker, guard Kevin Baker, and forward Juan Davis, Jr. provide crucial balance to the rotation and average between 7.3 and 8.2 points per game. Walker is a versatile defender who can guard 1-4, and Davis uses his length at 6’8 to be a matchup problem. He can shoot over defenses from the perimeter at a 41 percent clip. Baker leads the team in assists at 3.1 a game and steals with 41, and ranks second on the club with 71 threes.
How they can lose
Teams with bulk and length in the front court are the ones that the Trojans can have the most trouble with, particularly picking up fouls on Varnado. Offensively, the Trojans become perimeter-oriented when he is out, and it is critical to have floor balance against a team like Duke.
Front court depth is almost non-existent after Varnado, Davis Jr,. and Alex Hicks, and the starting guards are not the strongest rebounders, which can leave the offensive and defensive glass there for the taking for opponents.
The Trojans, at times, try to go one-on-one too often and don’t share the ball as much as they should, which results in bad shots and empty possessions. Varnado leads the team in turnovers and gets himself in trouble when he gets impatient and tries to do too much.
Walker is the only player with postseason experience, having been to the Final Four with Florida, so for nearly the entire roster, this moment will be one it has not experienced before. A team like Duke can overwhelm them with a quick start, so it is critical for the Trojans to stay poised in the early goings and play together.