After having success at the Division II level with Angelo State, the Little Rock Trojans came calling and tabbed Chris Beard as their head coach before the 2015-16 season. It was a bit of a risky decision, as it was his first head coaching job at the Division I level.
It turned out to be one of the best hires of the year.
Despite having an overhauled roster in comparison to the year prior, Beard helped guide the Trojans to a 30-5 record overall, taking home both the Sun Belt Conference regular season and tournament titles in the process. Then, in the NCAA Tournament, the 12th-seeded Trojans upset the fifth-seed Purdue Boilermakers in double-overtime, 85-83, to advance to the Round of 32.
Their season came to an end at the hands of the Iowa State Cyclones in he Round of 32, but it was a successful season overall for the team. Their five losses were tied for the fewest in the country.
On the heels of his success in his first year, Beard was considered a hot commodity on the coaching market. With several high-profile jobs opening up following the 2015-16 season, many expected Beard to leave Little Rock for the bright lights of a marquee job.
Late in March, it was reported that Beard had indeed found his new home. The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels came calling, and he answered, signing a five-year, $5 million deal to become their next head coach.
After his success in 2015-16, Beard finds himself in a familiar scenario. He’s on his way to a new team that will have a vastly different roster than it did a year ago, and he will look to re-create the magic he generated a season ago.
When Beard took over as the head coach of the Trojans, he had a tough road ahead of him, on paper at least.
Little Rock had only four significant contributors returning from the team that went 13-18 overall in 2014-15. Josh Hagins and Roger Woods were the key pieces coming back, as they ranked 1st and 3rd in terms of overall scoring on the team, respectively. Hagins averaged a team-best 12.1 points per game in 2014-15, while Woods added 11.9 points per game of his own.
Maurius Hill and Mareik Isom were also returning, but that was the bulk of the returning talent for Beard. The team was without the services of James White, James Reid, Ben Dillard, and J.T. Thomas in 2015-16, meaning several newcomers would need to step into bigger roles from the outset.
The Trojans landed two of the top transfers in the off-season, gaining commitments from Jermaine Ruttley and Daniel Green, both of whom were eligible to play right away. While they weren’t big contributors, their experience and sheer presence on the roster and the floor helped set the team up for success.
In total, the Trojans had seven newcomers who played key roles in the record-setting year for the Trojans. Nine different players averaged at least 3.0 points per game and 13.0 minutes of floor time per game, and 10 different players appeared in 29 games or more.
Even with a major roster overhaul, Beard was able to help guide the Trojans to a 30-5 record overall, and a 17-3 record in conference play. They advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, and have both the regular season and tournament titles in the Sun Belt to show for their efforts.
So, what does all of this have to do with Beard coming to UNLV? For the second season in a row, he finds himself in a nearly identical situation, only this time he’s looking to help the Runnin’ Rebels rebound from a down year in 2015-16.
The Runnin’ Rebels failed to live up to the expectations surrounding the program. After hometown product Stephen Zimmerman committed to UNLV in the summer, many thought that the team had the look of a top contender in the Mountain West. Those dreams never came into focus, and the Runnin’ Rebels fell flat in terms of the pre-season expectations.
After an 0-3 start in conference play, the team and then-head coach Dave Rice parted ways. UNLV would finish the season at 18-15 overall, and 8-10 in conference play. They did not accept a post-season tournament berth, thus putting an end to their lackluster season.
If the regular season wasn’t rough enough, the off-season hasn’t been too friendly in terms of player personnel for the 2016-17 season. The Runnin’ Rebels could look vastly different next season in comparison to the previous, as the vast majority of key contributors could be on their way out the door.
Below is a list of players who either are gone, or could be gone, from the team heading into next season (**=could return to school):
Jerome Seagears (Graduation)
10.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.3 spg
Ike Nwmau (Graduation)
11.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
Patrick McCaw (NBA Draft)
14.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.9 apg, 2.5 spg
Stephen Zimmerman (NBA Draft)
10.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg
Derrick Jones, Jr. (NBA Draft**)
11.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg
Chris Obekpa (NBA Draft**)
5.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.1 bpg (’14-15 stats w/ St. John’s)
Dwayne Morgan (Transfer)
5.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.5 apg
Daquan Cook (Transfer)
1.5 ppg, 0.5 rpg (2 games played in ’15-16)
Goodluck Okonoboh (Transfer)
3.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg (6 games played in ’15-16)
Jordan Cornish (Transfer)
6.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.5 apg
In total, 10 players could be gone from UNLV before the 2016-17 season tips off. That would leave just two key players on the roster from last year’s team (Jalen Poyser and Ben Carter).
The most intriguing decision was that of Obekpa. The big man transferred to UNLV following the 2014-15 season, but sat out last season due to transfer regulations. He is taking advantage of the new NBA Draft rule and declaring without signing an agent, meaning he could return to school following the draft combine. But, if he hears what he likes and is projected to be selected in the draft come June 23rd, he could very well be on his way out the door without playing a game for UNLV.
Jones, Jr finds himself in the same situation, having declared for the draft without signing with an agent, leaving the idea of returning to school a possibility.
Add in the four players who are looking for new homes, two who are firmly in the NBA Draft field, and two who graduated, and the odds are severely stacked against Beard once more. He will have his work cut out for him, and will rely heavily on a pair of incoming freshmen to have an immediate impact.
UNLV will welcome ESPN 100 point guard Jaylen Fisher (Arlington, TN) and small forward Justin Jackson (Scarborough, Ont., CAN) to the team next season, and both will look to be big contributors from the outset.
Fisher has the opportunity to step in and be the team’s starting point guard due to the recent departures. He is a great passer and has excellent court vision. Fisher has the ability to attack the lane, and excels in transition and off the dribble. He will have every opportunity to excel from the start of the year.
Jackson, who stands at 6’7” and 220 pounds, brings some size to the front court for UNLV. He has the frame that can handle more muscle, and he has impressive length for a small forward. Jackson is a versatile forward who has impressive shooting range, and the tools to be able to stretch his shooting range even farther and become more of a perimeter threat on offense.
In just one season at the NCAA Division I level, Chris Beard helped to turn the Little Rock Trojans around, putting together a 17-win improvement from the year prior. He did just that with a roster that had more newcomers than returnees.
While it’s still early in the off-season, fans are excited about the possibility of Beard recreating his magic with UNLV in 2016-17. Having Obekpa and/or Jones, Jr. return would be a huge plus for the team, as it would give the team some more weapons who have a wealth of experience in the NCAA.
Based on his track record, Beard is known as a strong recruiter and a coach who holds himself, his staff, and his players all accountable for their actions. He is a tough coach, and that’s exactly what the team needs.
Chris Beard is in a very familiar situation this season at UNLV, and we all know how it played out the last time his roster underwent a major overhaul.
Just ask the Purdue Boilermakers.