2019-2020 Record: 21-10 (15-5 in Sun Belt), Sun Belt Regular Season Champions
Key Returnering Players: Ruot Monyyong, Markquis Nowell, Ben Coupet Jr., Kris Bankston, and Jovan Stulic
Key Losses: Kamani Johnson (Transferred to Arkansas) ,Horace Wyatt Jr. (Transferred to D2 Morehouse), and Jazec Lottie (Left looking for respect)
Key Newcomers: They got some incoming European freshmen if that’s your jam: Marko Andric (Serbia) and Yacine Toumi (France).
Did you know Little Rock is the most populous city in Arkansas? No? Did you know it’s served twice daily by Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route? Also no? Okay, well, did you know it is also the location of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library? No? Oh, what’s that? You don’t care about any of these fun facts?
Well, hopefully, when you’re done reading this, you will know and care that the Little Rock Trojans are the best team in the Sun Belt.
For just a smidgen of context, coach Darrell Walker and his squad will run it back with all five of their 2019-20 opening night starters. After a late November/early December five-game slate in Louisville, the Trojans will run through a gauntlet of mostly back-to-back Friday/Saturday two-game sets against Sun Belt opponents. And they’ll do so in style with new Jordan brand uniforms.
3 Things to watch:
Maestro Point Guard and his DPOY Center
There’s something romantic about a basketball team that features and revolves around a brilliant floor general point guard and high-octane, two-way center. It just feels like basketball in its rawest form. Just guys being dudes on the hardwood. And luckily, we all get to watch one more year of Markquis Nowell and Ruot Monyyong being dudes on the hardwood once again.
Monyyong is the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, and he, along with the 5’7 Nowell, are both reigning first-team All-Conference selections. Nowell is always a must watch. His quick release jumper from two feet beyond the arc is a thing of beauty, and it shockingly does not even compare to his extravagant, yet oddly functional, layup package for when he takes his business to the rim.
Meanwhile, Monyyong is your typical long and lanky who effortlessly swats shots into the backboard. On offense, he’s one of those players who makes you audibly go “Nonononon-YES!” when he puts the ball down on the floor. As is said about literally every post player on the face of the planet, if his three point shot rises from 21% to a more consistent mark in the low thirties, he will be an absolute force on the offensive end.
Continuity to the Extreme
I wonder how frustrating it has to be for the opposition when the best team in your conference returns all of their opening-night starters. This feels even more brutal when said best team generally really only seemed vulnerable in on-the-road in hostile environments, which will presumably be hard to come by in the upcoming season.
It’s not often you get to see a conference champion get to run it back with their entire, ideal starting lineup, especially one that meshes as beautifully as Little Rock’s. The Trojans boast an offense that shares the scoring load and embraces positionless basketball. Walker usually trots out three guards who all demand constant attention on the perimeter: Nowell, Ben Coupet Jr., and Jovan Stulic. The frontcourt features Kris Bankston banging around the blocks and high post with Monyyong.
Sixth Man on the Rise
Sophomore Isaiah Palermo should expect a significant boost in minutes considering last year’s sixth-man Jazec Lottie is no longer with the program. Palermo is a former 3-star recruit who has shown flashes of prolific scoring capability. It will be exciting to see what he can do with an extra ten minutes per game.
While Monyyong rightfully garners all the defensive accolades and would be considered the motor of Little Rock’s defense, Kamani Johnson was the gas last season. Johnson was the prototypical athletic wing flying around the court with serious grit and energy. And it wasn’t just his play on the defensive end that exhausted the opposition, Johnson averaged double-digits in points on an efficient field goal percentage and was lethal in the pick and roll with his strength and knack for low-post scoring.
However, Johnson probably would have never found himself in the starting five if not for Kris Bankston’s bad back which required him to sit all but the first three games of last season. Assuming Bankston returns healthy and at full strength he should pick up right where he left off, which was shooting an impressive 82% from the field through the three games he appeared in.
Bankston is your guy who will make the little plays, like nabbing a putback bucket after a long, grinding offensive possession. Over the course of the entire forty minutes those little plays add up and not only energize the rest of your team, but put you in situations to comfortably close out tight games. If Bankston takes care of business, the Little Rock backcourt can do their thing and propel the Trojans to another first-place finish.