Tennessee-Martin (0-0) at Arkansas-Little Rock (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Friday, Nov. 9, 8 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Jack Stephens Center (5,600) -- Little Rock, Arkansas. Television: None. Home Record: Tennessee-Martin 0-0, AKLR 0-0. Away Record: Tennessee-Martin 0-0, AKLR 0-0. Neutral Record: Tennessee-Martin 0-0, AKLR 0-0. Conference Record: Tennessee-Martin 0-0, AKLR 0-0. Series Record: AKLR leads 3-0.
GAMES NOTES: One of the better teams in the Sun Belt Conference a year ago takes on one of the worst from the Ohio Valley Conference this evening, when the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans battle the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks at the Jack Stephens Center.
To call last season an utter disappointment for Tennessee-Martin would be a huge understatement. The Skyhawks finished with just four wins in 31 tries, including losses in 14 straight at one point. In fact Tennesse-Martin won only two games against a Division I opponent with a surprising 59-54 win on the road over UAB and a 76-75 win over Kennesaw State. The team's .129 winning percentage was the lowest in team history since joining the Division I level in 1992.
Although it's 15-16 overall record might say otherwise, Arkansas-Little Rock was in the Sun Belt title race to the bitter end last season thanks to a 12-4 mark against conference foes. That was good enough for second place in the conference, and the top spot in the West Division. The Trojans failed to advance in the conference tournament losing in the first round to the eventual champion Western Kentucky. With the return of preseason All-Sun Belt selection Will Neighbour, Arkansas-Little Rock has a real chance to be a thorn in the side of conference favorite Middle Tennessee this season, the 10th under Steve Shields.
In three previous meetings Arkansas-Little Rock has come out on top every time. All three of those matchups occurred in Little Rock with the last one coming in 2006.
It's no surprise that Tennesee-Martin had so much trouble last season with the Skyhawks one of the worst defensive teams in the country. Despite a modest 62.7 points per game scoring average, Tennessee-Martin was rarely in ball games, giving up 75.1 on the defensive side. No defense was easier to score on in Division I last season with the Skyhawks getting lit up for a national- worst 50.5 field goal percentage. Head coach Jason James still has a lot to work on obviously but he does have some good pieces already in place. Mike Liabo (15.2 ppg) was the team's leading scorer last season and comes back as one of the more dynamic scorers in the conference. Also back on the roster is last season's OVC Freshman of the Year Myles Taylor (13.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) who is the go-to scorer in the paint. Terence Smith (11.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) did not play last season due to an injury and will get the offense back into some kind of consistency with his steady play at the point.
Neighbour is the focal point for Arkansas-Little Rock and much is expected of the junior coming into this season. He gained Second Team All-Sun Belt honors as the team's second leading scorer (10.5 ppg) and rebounder (5.3 ppg). Neighbour's offensive opportunities will grow this season with the loss for D'Andre Williams (13.2 ppg) and Chuck Guy (10.4 ppg). Neighbour showed last season that he is more than capable of being the team's leader as he was the top scorer in nine games. Neighbour has the size (6-10) to really dominate but needs to be a bit better inside both offensively and on the boards to really reach the upper echelon of the conference. Michael Javes (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) was also a starter last season and will have to step up his production after falling into the background in recent years. Gus Leeper was in the mix two years ago but missed last season with a knee injury. Joining Neighbour in the frontcourt are a number of sizable freshmen that will get plenty of opportunities such as Andrew Pulter (6-11, 282) and James White (6-8, 215).
Having Liabo and Taylor on the roster gives Tennessee-Martin talent but the pair were on the team last season and it did not equate to many wins. Arkansas-Little Rock will still be trying to find its identity, but won't need too much to beat the Skyhawks.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arkansas-Little Rock 75, Tennessee-Martin 60
11/09 10:35:05 ET