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Little Rock has surged to the top of the Sun Belt under Darrell Walker

The road warrior Trojans have taken strides with a longtime NBA staple at the helm.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Little Rock at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago, Darrell Walker was struggling to get his foot in the college coaching door and on its face, that was somewhat laughable. Walker thought so himself, and likely so would most people scanning his bona fides.

“I started to get some interviews, sent my resume out and it was always, ‘yeah, you’ve got a great resume, but you haven’t coached in college,’” Walker said. “I would just laugh to myself. No, I haven’t coached in college but I’ve coached at the highest level you can go in my profession.”

He’d spent nearly three decades at that highest level. Walker was a fixture in the NBA beginning when he was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1983, and through serving as an assistant in New York during the 2013-14 season. In between he seemingly saw it all on basketball’s grandest stage.

He suited up with Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan during a playing career that spanned 10 seasons and 720 games. A year after retiring, he got into coaching, ultimately serving as head coach in both Toronto and Washington, and spent 10 other seasons as an assistant in Toronto, New Orleans, Detroit and New York. He also spent time as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association and WNBA.

But a packed resume dotted with things like “mentoring a young Chris Paul” apparently wasn’t enough for Division I athletic directors. That frustrated Walker, until he got a call in 2016 from an artist friend of his who lived in Atlanta. Clark, a Division II school in Atlanta, was looking for a head coach and Walker’s friend thought he might be interested.

At first, Walker was hesitant.

“He told me, ‘well, I don’t want to hear that stuff then about how you want to coach in college, you should send your resume in,’” Walker said. “So I thought to myself, you know, he’s right. I didn’t think I’d get a response, but got a call back and two days later came in for an interview.”

The NBA staple had finally broken into the college game, even if it wasn’t at the level he originally envisioned. Walker took over Clark in 2016 and engineered an immediate turnaround. The Panthers upped their win total from nine to 21 wins in Walker’s first season, and over two years in Atlanta he brought Clark to two Division II NCAA Tournaments, a place they had only been four times before in their history. It wasn’t without challenges.

“Was everything rosy when I got there? Was the locker room in shambles and tore up? Was the gym kind of messed up a little bit?” he said. “But I took a look at everything and said I can make it work here. I’m in Atlanta and I can recruit to this school and to a good city, and I just dug my feet into the ground and said I’m going to make this work and have a ball with it, and I did.”

With that success, circumstances finally aligned for Walker to land in Division I. After being a finalist for the Little Rock job in 2015 — which ultimately went to Chris Beard — he was handed the keys to the program in 2018. And just like at Clark, the man who at one time couldn’t quite cut it for Division I athletic directors has the Trojans enjoying a resurgent season.

“Been through the battles”

Beard’s lone season in Arkansas brought dizzying heights: the patented vise grip defense, a 30-win campaign and a dramatic upset of Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. Understandably, there was a drop off the two seasons after under Wes Flanagan, as the Trojans slipped to 7-25 in 2017-18.

That ushered in Walker, who was immersed in the stuff of first seasons a year ago.

“Last year we were small and we were young. We basically had four 4 guards out there a lot, and our margin of error was very low,” he said.

With several freshmen in big roles, the Trojans limped to a 10-21 (5-13) season, closing the year with six consecutive losses and missing the Sun Belt Tournament. But that experience has come home to roost this year, as Little Rock has exploded to a 9-2 league start — it’s best since that magical 2015-16 season.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Little Rock at Memphis
Darrell Walker is in charge of another college turnaround.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

A big part of that — and Little Rock’s 15-7 overall record — has been its success on the road. The Trojans have racked up seven away wins, including three of the wins on their current four-game winning streak. For Walker, that tone was set right away with a tight win at Missouri State to start the year, when junior Ruot Monyyong punched in a game-winning shot with 2.3 seconds left.

But the groundwork was laid with what the team went through a year ago.

“I think we lost so many tight, close games on the road last year and we always found a way to lose those games,” Walker said. “Starting with the Missouri State game, we were able to win that on the road and that propelled us. [Last year] we were in close games and didn’t know how to close it, but this year these guys keep their composure, they’re poised, they’ve been through some battles and it’s helped us.”

What’s also helped the Trojans to their pole position start has been the development of point guard Markquis Nowell. The sophomore was a part of Walker’s freshmen brigade last year, and has taken strides this season as a strong league Player of the Year candidate. The dynamic 5’7’’ guard has increased his point total (17.4 PPG) and assist rate (29.3%) while being far more efficient shooting the ball than he was a year ago.

That’s precisely the growth Walker was looking for from his star.

“Last year, he was more looking to score and I kept telling him you‘re not going to be able to play for me if you’re going to chase shots at 5’7.’’ You’re going to play 35 minutes and get shots in the rhythm of the offense, and he’s learned how to score in the rhythm of the offense and set his teammates up, and that’s a big chunk. He’s matured as a player.”

Nowell has become one of the country’s most lethal three-point shooters, which was on display when he threw in 33 points on eight three pointers (8-14 3FG) in the Trojans’ Sun Belt-opening win over Louisiana Monroe. In all, he’s shooting over 40 percent from deep despite a healthy amount of attempts (125 3PA).

Getting back to New Orleans

Exciting as the Nowell-led offense has been at times, it’s the other side of the ball that Walker sees as Little Rock’s path back to the top of the league.

“This year’s team has more length and athletic ability, and when you have length your margin for error goes up a little bit,” he said. “Defensively this team has really bought in and if we’re going to win anything around here, we’re not scoring 80 points a game. We have to defend, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Monyyong, a JuCo transfer and former three-star prep recruit, has helped provide that heft and athleticism in the post while being the league’s most dominant defensive rebounder. Ben Coupet, a UNLV transfer from Chicago prep powerhouse Simeon, has also injected athleticism in the frontcourt. The same goes for sophomore big Kamani Johnson who, like Nowell, has taken strides in his second season, including a breakout 30-point, 13-rebound, 5-assist performance in a win over UT Arlington on Jan. 4.

Will that be enough to lift Little Rock to its sixth NCAA Tournament? Walker knows the challenges in front of his squad in a Sun Belt deeper than many casual fans may realize.

“Anybody in this league can beat anyone, I’m going to say it again to you, anybody in this league can beat anybody,” he said. “There’s some good teams and this is far from over with. Our goal is to try and get to New Orleans, that’s our goal right there.”

Tough trips to UT Arlington, Texas State, Arkansas State and recent league heavyweight Georgia State are still on the docket. But if the Trojans can take care of business at home, and navigate the choppy road waters the way they have already, they could set themselves up well to reach the league tournament semifinals in New Orleans.

It’s a city that Walker knows well, having spent those four season as an assistant with the then-Hornets. He’s also been a part of big wins in the Crescent City, having been a part of the 2007-08 Hornets team that rode Chris Paul and David West to its first seven-game series playoff series win in franchise history.

Walker now has a chance to bring home that kind of big-impact win in Division I, even if it took a little longer than he originally hoped.