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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Over the course of a single weekend in March, Arkansas-Pine Bluff transformed a seventh-place regular-season SWAC finish into the most successful campaign in school history.
The Golden Lions, who have only played in the NCAA's top flight since 1998-99, have spent most of the last decade as the SWAC's version of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- aimless and without hope. While 20 wins is a good general measure of a successful basketball season, it took the program more than six years to net its 20th Division I win.
After years of finishing ninth or 10th in the league standings (and sitting in the RPI's obstructed-view 300-level), UAPB made its first appearance in the eight-team conference tournament in 2005.
But it took Van Holt's crew just two nights to reverse seven years of mediocrity, bringing the program some instant respect. In its second-ever trip to the tournament, as a No. 7-seeded team with eight league wins, UAPB knocked off defending champion Alabama A&M in the quarterfinals by 10 points, then dropped Grambling by 12 in the semifinals an evening later. The night before Selection Sunday, the Golden Lions were college basketball's ultimate Cinderellas-in-waiting, just a single win (their season total for 2003-04) from the NCAA's Big Dance.
"It's like [longtime WNBA coach] Van Chancellor told me afterwards," Holt said. "He said, 'Don't you realize that you played the top three teams back to back to back? Coach, you played the toughest three nights of anybody.' And it's true, we beat both the teams that finished tied for second. It didn't really dawn on me until he told me that.
"A lot had to do with the match-ups," said Holt of the tournament run, which came to a halt in the SWAC title game with a 57-44 loss to Southern. "We'd beaten A&M the last time we played them prior to the tournament, and the same thing with Grambling. The confidence level was up and the focus was there, and they were able to give a supreme effort. It took its toll in the finals, though. Southern was a big physical team and we're more of a finesse team."
Finesse, yes, but defense was a huge part of the Golden Lions' success. Last year they were the SWAC's No. 1 team in defensive efficiency, with .878 points allowed per defensive possession (also good for 6th nationally).
"If I have a mind-set, it's a defensive mind-set," Holt said. "And they enjoy playing defense. We tried playing some zone, but it wasn't aggressive enough for them. We went to a lot of different man-to-man schemes last year, which suited them very well. Now that these guys understand them, we can add a little more to our defense this year, because they've already put down the base layers."
UAPB will enter the season without two key contributors from last year's surprise squad. Martese Coleman was the team's assists leader, collecting 2.7 per game in addition to his 9.2 points. Tamarius Brown was technically the team's leading scorer (13.7 ppg), but he left the team in January after 10 games.
Everyone else is back for an encore, most notably 6-7 senior forward William Byrd (11.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Byrd emerged as a do-it-all player who also contributed 2.1 blocks per game. He keyed the quarterfinal upset over A&M with 21 points. Holt thinks Byrd has plenty of additional un-lockable potential.
"He's a lot stronger than what he looks to be," Holt said. "He's pretty close to a complete ballplayer. Great timing; plays well off the ball. If he really had the mindset to go to the next level, I think he could, but he's kind of a laid-back fellow. If he ever pumped himself up, there's no telling how good he'd be."