Appalachian State won’t face a more experienced opponent this season than Little Rock, which features five senior starters that log 70% of the team’s total minutes. Four of the five are also junior-college transfers which has been a standing recruiting strategy for the Trojans, and it worked to near perfection last season – Little Rock went 30-5 with a first-round NCAA stunner over Purdue.
But, one of those scant-few five losses came at App State. Ronshad Shabazz led the Mountaineers with a stellar 22-point performance and Jake Babic came up big, as he has done historically in upset wins, with 10 points and three assists in 22 minutes.
This Trojan team hasn’t been able to match the dominance of 2015-16, when they started with 10 straight wins and finished with a 17-3 Sun Belt record, but the Trojans’ ultra-experienced starters are a stark contrast to the youthful Mountaineers.
LITTLE ROCK TROJANS
Marcus Johnson, Jr.: North Carolina native utilizes his quickness to lead the most balanced scoring lineup in the Sun Belt, where the all five starters average between 10.0-13.3 per game. Johnson is the first trigger for the offense, also leading the Trojans in assists, but Little Rock is a middle of the pack scoring team.
Jalen Jackson: Versatile 6’6” swingman does most of his work inside the three-point line with an effective mid-range game. Jackson is also an active defender who likely pulls defensive duty on Shabazz. You can give Jackson room at the arc as he’s a hesitant shooter, but don’t let him get too deep in the paint.
Maurius Hill: Hill is a powerfully built small forward whose game is very much like Jackson’s. He wants to work closer to the basket, plays tough defense, and gets on the glass effectively. Hill is also the most efficient of Little Rock’s starters offensively, shooting a little over 50% from the floor. He wants to force his way to the free-throw line, as well.
Kemmy Osse: Fifth-year senior comes into this game shooting 60% from the floor in the Trojans’ first two league games. Osse works his way around the perimeter, where he’s Little Rock’s best three-point shooter (41%). Osse won’t mix it up much closer to the basket, so defenders have to be disciplined to stick with him outside.
Lis Soshi: Rangy European big man with impressive ball skills and a nose for offensive rebounds (fourth best on the Sun Belt). Force him to work on both ends of the floor and App’s athletic power forwards should attack him off the dribble, especially Isaac Johnson. If Appalachian can get Soshi in foul trouble it changes the Trojans’ dynamic all over the floor.
Andre Jones/Deondre Burns/Oliver Black: Jones and Burns are bookend guards who both score modestly but either could be a difference-maker. Black is the post presence behind Soshi but doesn’t bring the starter’s polish, especially offensively. The starters do the vast majority of damage, so getting into their bench for more than 15 minutes per guys is a positive sign.
APP STATE MOUNTAINEERS
Ronshad Shabazz: Shabazz finished the Texas swing averaging 15 points per game. A key indicator to an Appalachian victory is Shabazz’s scoring average, which hits 18.2 per game in wins. Additionally, he’s been more active on the boards of late with at least four rebounds in the past four games. Bottom line, App lives and dies with Shabazz.
Griffin Kinney: Kinney comes into the weekend averaging 11 points, eight rebounds, and is shooting 64% from the floor in the past four games. Oh, he’s also perfect from the three-point line; sure, it’s just 2-2, but still! Against a sticky defensive team like Little Rock Kinney’s ability to get some close looks – and make them - will be critical.
Kelvin Robinson: Robinson continues to impact games in multiple ways, not the least of which is defensively, but he got back to his offensive groove a little more at Arlington. His 3-6 shooting night was his first 50% game in the previous four. To beat Little Rock you have to out-defense them, and Robinson is critical in that effort.
Tyrell Johnson: Here’s another game where Johnson should be a tough match-up for an opponent. But, when he scored 12 in the home win over Hampton it was his only double-figure point production in the last 10 games, and he’s shooting 39% from the floor. Can Tyrell find the offensive consistency that would take this team to another level?
Emarius Logan: Coming into the game at Arlington Logan was playing as well as anyone on the team, but he had one of “those” nights at UTA. He went 0-9 from the floor, 0-6 from three, and had no turnovers with four turnovers. As tough as that performance was, Appalachian is best when Logan is on his game, too. It’s bounceback time.
Patrick Good: Good showed us one thing in the first three games of his App State career – freshman or no, there’s no moment that’s too big for him. Against UT-Arlington he showed us something new. He’s explosive enough as a shooter to carry an offense, as he showed scoring 30% of Mountaineer points vs. the Mavs.
Isaac Johnson: Johnson joined Good in the youth movement at UT-Arlington with 14 points (6-8 shooting) and eight rebounds. Additionally, credit both Isaac and Good defensively, as they also lead the team in steals. Johnson’s productivity relative to his minutes played continues to be off the charts for the recruiting steal.
Jake Babic/Craig Hinton: Babic and Hinton have been combining for around 20 minutes per game over the last four, and despite the relatively modest minutes both have been able to make contributions in specific moments. Again, both bring unique attributes to the floor that will eventually be significant in a key win.
Bennett Holley: Holley has missed several games now while nursing a high-ankle sprain. It was anticipated he would return to the floor when App returned home for this Arkansas series, so we’ll have an eye out for him in pre-game warm-ups. What role he ultimately plays remains to be seen.
If you thought UT-Arlington wanted to play an ugly, grinding game wait until Little Rock rolls into the Holmes. Their calling card in that tremendous season last year was defense. This year’s team isn’t quite as lock-down but they’re still good, allowing just 68.6 points per game. They also force nearly 15 turnovers per game, which plagued App State in the Texas swing.
One area where Little Rock is not as effective defensively is in guarding the three-point line. Opponents shoot over 36% from the arc against the Trojans, which is probably a willing concession on their part, but it’s an area that can be an advantage. However, the Mountaineers shot less than 30% from deep in Texas, but subtract Good’s numbers and it drops to under 20%.
Again, it seems simple; Appalachian just has to make shots. As in Texas, the looks are going to be there but the Mountaineers have to convert them. Will the home rims provide the same familiar bounces that led to 47% shooting from the floor and 46% at the arc in wins over James Madison and Hampton?
This one will be tough and tight throughout IF App State can re-discover their shooting range.
LITTLE ROCK 64 – APP STATE 60