The University of Arkansas-Little Rock men's basketball team begins the home portion of its Ohio Valley Conference schedule tonight as it welcomes Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.
The Trojans started conference play last week, coming away with a split on their road trip to Tennessee.
UALR (7-8, 1-1 OVC) picked up an 81-75 win last Thursday against Tennessee Tech at Cookeville, but lost 90-82 on Saturday at Nashville to Tennessee State. The Trojans led 44-41 against Tennessee State at halftime, but shot just 36% from the field in the second half as the Tigers were able to pull away in the final minutes.
"We played well at Tennessee Tech and was able to get a win there," UALR Coach Darrell Walker said. "At Tennessee State, we were right there and had a chance to win the game. Our guards didn't shoot well. They shot 5 for 27 from the floor, so that kind of hurt us. Overall, we went on the road trip and got a split and now we're at home for two games."
The first of those games will be against SIU-Edwardsville (8-7, 1-1), which has played well at home but struggled on the road. The Cougars boast a 6-1 record at home, but have yet to win a game away from the First Community Arena in Edwardsville.
Senior guard Shamar Wright leads SIU-Edwardsville in scoring, averaging 15.6 points per game. His twin brother Lamar Wright is also a key contributor for the Cougars, averaging 10.2 points. The Wright brothers are the sons of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright, who played 13 seasons in the NBA and was shot to death in 2010 in Memphis.
"They're good players and they've been there for a while," Walker said of the twins. "Those guards are really good along with those Wright brothers, so we have to contain them and keep them under control as much as possible."
The Trojans have collected some quality wins so far on the season, but have also suffered several head-scratching losses. Walker said he believes improvement on the defense will be key for the team finding more consistency on a night-to-night basis.
"We have to get better defensively," he said. "I've stressed that all year to my basketball team. We're scoring enough points to win basketball games. That's not the question. It's not about scoring. It's about stopping people. We just got to put a full 40 minutes together like we did at Tennessee Tech."
Injuries and player availability was also an issue for UALR during nonconference play. University of Arkansas transfer guard Khalen Robinson missed six games with a knee injury. That was problematic for the team as Robinson has been the Trojans' leading scorer and primary ball-handler.
Another Razorback transfer, center Makhel Mitchell, has only played in one game due to a combination of eligibility issues involving the NCAA, as well as an undisclosed injury he suffered against Murray State that has sidelined him for the past three games. Mitchell is expected to return to action tonight and Walker said he is looking forward to having his full complement of players back on the floor.
"As Coach [assistant coach Charles] Baker said to me. 'If I told you in the summer time that KK [Robinson] was going to miss six games and Makhel was going to play one game for you, would you take 7-8 [record]?' " Walker said. "After I thought about it, I said with the schedule we've played, yeah I would take that moving into the conference."
Walker said he has seen plenty of growth in the players that have been on the floor. With a lineup that features a mixture of youth and experience, it has taken time for the roster to find cohesiveness.
"I think some of our younger guys in Jaylen [Crocker-Johnson] and Creed [Williamson] have grown up right in front of everybody's eyes being freshmen," Walker said. "Jamir [Chaplin] is playing well enough that if he keeps this pace up, he could be player of the year in the conference. More than anything, let's just be honest, we got to get our guards going."