LITTLE ROCK — Confidence shaken by a thoroughbred and a basketball team, a gimme was needed, something or somebody to tout with little risk of being wrong.
Thank goodness for Joe Foley, a good guy and a superb coach who will be oblivious if I zero in on his Arkansas-Little Rock women’s basketball team as one of the favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament that begins Friday in Hot Springs.
Basketball teams can make a splash and then regress when great players depart. At UALR, the constants are Foley and winning. That theory could have been questioned in mid-January when the UALR team that started 3-0 in conference play had sunk to 3-6. The Trojans finished 14-6 in the league and 22-7 on the season, the seventh straight year of 20-plus victories under Foley.
Before exploring the turnaround, words about a couple of embarrassing misses.
Months prior to the beginning of racing at Oaklawn Park, there was a column about a 2-year-old thoroughbred with Arkansas connections who was going to run in a $1 million Breeders’ Cup on the grass, but was a 3-year-old to watch at Oaklawn. Brown Almighty was out of the money that day, but had an excuse and his connections promised he would be good or better on dirt. A lackluster performance in January at Oaklawn was blamed on a lung infection and I invested another $8 when he ran in February. Again, he disappointed.
Now, he’s headed back to grass racing and there is no turf at Oaklawn.
The other disappointment was not as drawn out. Hours after Saturday’s column was published lauding coach Cuonzo Martin for Tennessee’s six-game winning streak, the Vols lost at Georgia.
UALR’s winning streak is rooted in defense, which should be no surprise with Foley in charge. UALR started 4-9 last year, then won seven of its last eight. Asked to explain, Foley said, "It started with us playing better defense."
During UALR’s slide this year, opponents shot close to 40 percent — not spectacular, but good enough. Statistics are not all-telling, but during the winning streak, three UALR opponents made less than 30 percent of their attempts. The norm was around 35 percent, an extra couple of stops per game that can make the difference in a W and an L.
Beginning with the Florida Atlantic game on Jan. 23, UALR opponents scored 45, 48, 52, 34, 62, 50, 43, 47, 43, 41, 50. Foley’s teams have now won 83 in a row when the opponent scores 50 or less.
Selling defense takes some doing and Foley made wholesale changes to close the deal. For more than a month, he has used the same lineup, but four other players started at least one game during the losing streak.
Middle Tennessee State, winner of the Eastern Division, is the No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament and UALR is No. 2. Middle Tennessee’s RPI is 51, probably good enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA should the Blue Raiders lose in Hot Springs. UALR is in the mid 70s, a couple of notches below Arkansas, and the Trojans must win the tournament to get in. Last year, UALR won 71-70 in overtime and both teams made the NCAA.
This year, Middle Tennessee won the first time around when Ebony Rowe scored 35, including 13-of-21 from the field and 9-of-12 from the free throw line. At home, UALR won when Rowe took only 12 shots and four free throws and scored 14.
The rubber game of the series should be at 1 p.m. Monday.
On the men’s side, Middle Tennessee is the class, sporting an RPI of 26, seven spots ahead of Missouri, the No. 2 team in the Southeastern Conference and a 30-point winner over Arkansas.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.