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story.lead_photo.caption UALR Coach Darrell Walker (left) leads the Trojans against South Alabama in a Sun Belt Conference game today. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Darrell Walker walked down the stairs of his second-floor office and proceeded into an empty Jack Stephens Center with several pages of plays scribbled in red and black marker in his hands around 1:45 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball team was hours away from its 6:30 p.m. Sun Belt Conference home opener against Troy University, and this is when a typical game day under Walker begins.

Wearing a gray vest with UALR's Trojan patch embroidered on his chest, and sturdy, black Jordan sneakers on his feet -- a staple in Walker's wardrobe after sharing a backcourt with NBA legend Michael Jordan during the Chicago Bulls' 1993 championship run -- Walker touched the final stair and looked down at his library of plays.

"Let's lock in," he bellows. "Let's go."

A 10-year NBA guard and two-time NBA head coach who was hired after UALR finished 7-25 last season under Wes Flanigan, Walker's pregame methods have NBA-like infusions that are straightforward and rarely change.

This was a 20-minute class. No music was playing. The arena was quiet, like a classroom. Walker's calm but confident voice cannot be mistaken.

Walker began instructing and explaining what Troy might show UALR.

He wanted his players to trap the corners against Troy senior forwards Alex Hicks and Jordon Varnado, the team's two leading scorers and one of the most threatening tandem of bigs in the Sun Belt.

Walker explained a complex double-down screen that Troy uses to free a shooter near the top of the key.

"What they want is that right there," he said, pointing to reserve forward Damir Hadzic who was acting as Troy's three-point shooter.

Another option out of the congested play was for Troy to dump the ball to Varnado or Hicks on the block, in prime position to bruise UALR's interior defense.

"I want that to be a tough, tough, tough catch," he said.

He ran his team through the same sequence a few more times. He bellowed "turn it around" -- Walker's command for UALR's players to flip from offense to defense and vice versa.

"Turn it around."

"Turn it around."

"Turn it around."

Freshman forward Horace Wyatt Jr. was out of position on one run-through of Troy's set. Walker flipped his back toward the group, looked away and did not say another word. He chose to stand silently.

UALR defeated Troy later that night 73-59 for the team's first conference victory. Sixteen games into the season, the Trojans are 6-10, but an example Thursday before the Troy game illustrated the Trojans are starting to get their first-year coach.

Sophomore guard Jaizec Lottie was at the top of the key, and play restarted without Walker's command. This came from the same player who professed in October that it took a while to connect with his new coach.

"Early on, it wasn't as easy," Lottie said at UALR basketball media day. "I feel like a lot of players didn't trust him as much. When he sits down and analyzes like that, everyone's buying in. It's really cool."

Walker's play sheets have marker scribbled all over them, so much so that they are nearly illegible to the untrained eye.

There are multiple pages with tons of varying play structures, some of which Walker wouldn't use in Thursday's game. He prefers to redesign out-of-timeout plays specifically for each game, like he says most coaches do.

He wants to give UALR options. New, unseen options.

After scouting Troy, UALR began to walk through its own offensive sets. There were some new designs with brief scouting nuggets on Troy's defenders. Others were more traditional looks or alignments Walker had used previously.

"You guys should know this right here," he said.

One of UALR's options has freshman center Nikola Maric catching the ball on the fringe of the paint. Walker, after hours of watching film, predicted what would come next.

"He's not going to come down the whole game," Walker said. "When he doesn't, go get him Nikola."

Shootaround ended, and Walker's next move is always the same while his players are served a pregame meal. A massive dry-erase board needs to be filled with objectives that Walker said rarely has changed since he began coaching in 1995.

"My board has been the same for a long time," he said. "It's the basics of winning."

He walked up the stairs to his office. It's a simple space without much on the walls or atop desks other than a photo of he and his wife, Lisa, with former President Bill Clinton at the White House, and an action shot of himself driving by Boston Celtics legends Dennis Johnson and Larry Bird in 1984 as a Knicks guard.

The dry-erase board is Walker's final teaching tool before UALR's official warm-ups begin a half-hour before tipoff. He filled it out hours in advance.

Defensive goals align the left side of the board: transition D, contest shots, box out, gang rebound. The offensive side has a theme: Push the ball. Run, run.

Walker said there's nothing more important on the board than two words: "LIMIT T.O.", which he wrote in giant black letters. He even drew an arrow pointed directly at it to make sure it was not overlooked.

UALR averaged 15, 24, 18 and 23 turnovers in four consecutive losses entering Thursday's game.

"I can put all this stuff on the board," he said, thumping his marker against it. "That's a freaking killer. It kills us."

Around 3 p.m., Walker's pregame routine took a relatable turn. He expected a long night because he planned to study South Alabama -- UALR's opponent at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Jack Stephens Center -- once Thursday's game ended. So he decided to double up.

"The usual?" director of basketball operations Logan Dahms asked Walker.

Sort of.

Walker requested two eight-counts of chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A, and two large lemonades -- one for before Thursday's game and the other for his film binge afterward.

"That Chick-fil-A," Walker said, "it is a winner. It really is."

Walker's meal usually is followed by a short nap, or the time provides a window for Walker to unwind and watch television before heading to the locker room an hour before tipoff to put the final scouting touches on Troy.

On Thursday, a quick nap preceded a detailed film session in UALR's locker room.

Sitting in the middle of the room in a white oxford shirt, black pants and sneakers -- Walker's usual game-day attire -- his voice is the only one heard in a locker room jammed wall-to-wall with players and staff members. A television is rolled into the center to display Troy's December games at Western Kentucky and UAB, and its most recent game last Saturday vs. Appalachian State.

"Run that back," Walker commanded, pointing at the screen and requesting a rewind of the tape. "See? No. 2 is not doing his job."

"Stop. Run that back," he said. "He's just lazy."

"Let it go," Walker said.

The video operator pressed play.

"Sometimes he'll be really soft with it," Walker said. "If he is, keep your dribble. Attack. Make the read.

"Everybody clear on that?

"Let it go."

After UALR broke down Troy's expected contributors individually -- including their offensive and defensive tendencies -- Walker's board is wheeled into the room 30 minutes before tipoff.

He went over each point and ended on the arrow he drew hours ago.

"The last one I shouldn't even have to talk about anymore," he said about the turnovers. "Let's go. Let's go get a win."

"We'll see what happens," Walker said en route to his office for one last decompression before tipoff.

He then began pacing. Walker peeked out of his office's window blinds to look at cars parking in the Jack Stephens Center's main entrance parking lot.

"Are you nervous?" he is asked.

"I always pace," Walker answered. "I've done it my whole career. Always walking around."

Once Walker sat down from his paces, he watched the end of a rerun episode of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN2 and had a conversation with assistant coach Charles Baker about two-time heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, whose photo on the TV prompted the chatter.

"How long do you stay up here before the game," he is asked.

"They usually come get me," Walker said.

Today’s game

SOUTH ALABAMA AT UALR

WHEN 3 p.m.

WHERE Jack Stephens Center, Little Rock

RECORDS South Alabama 9-7, 2-1 Sun Belt Conference; UALR 6-10, 1-2

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
UALR Coach Darrell Walker (seated) talks to his team during a timeout Nov. 8 against Southeastern Oklahoma State at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.

Sports on 01/12/2019

Print Headline: 'It's the basics of winning': Inside game day with Darrell Walker and UALR basketball

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