Photo courtesy of Little Rock Athletics.
By David Cordova
When a coach moves into the Division I scene for the first time, things are never supposed to be easy. It is all a process that one has to endure before they can endure the fruits of labor.
At this time, Darrell Walker is going through that process, and he’s going through it in a state that he knows fully well. The state of Arkansas.
As a player, he played for Division II Arkansas-Fort Smith for a season (1979-80), and then moved on to the University of Arkansas to play for the Razorbacks for three seasons on the Division I level (1980-83), before being selected as the No. 12 pick in the 1983 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He would go on to play nine seasons for five teams, including the Chicago Bulls, with whom he won an NBA title in 1993.
Now, 35 years after he made an impact with the Razorbacks, he has back in the state of Arkansas and coaching on the Division I level, for the Little Rock Trojans.
The Trojans play in the Sun Belt Conference, and have played in seven NCAA Tournament games dating back to 1986. Just two years ago, under Chris Beard, who is now the head coach at Texas Tech, Little Rock had a 30-5 record and upset Purdue in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
After Beard left, the program went through two dismal seasons under Wes Flanigan, who was fired in March. Enter Coach Walker.
“We’re trying to build something special down here, it’s my first year on the job. [I’m] trying to recruit the right players and good kids with good character and build some foundation,” he said.
Walker, aside from his playing experience, spent 19 years coaching in the professional ranks in the NBA, CBA & WNBA. He was the head coach of the Toronto Raptors from 1996-98, where he had a dismal 41-90 record in his tenure there and also a short stint as an interim coach with the Washington Wizards in 1999-00. The pros are very hard to get into, which is why he preaches education first.
“I tell them to go to school and get their degree. There’s only 400-something jobs in the NBA, everybody’s not going to play in the NBA. I tell my guys to get their degree and I make them get their degree,” he said.
In 2016, after a long period of time in the professional ranks, Walker moved on to the college scene, as he took a job at Clark Atlanta University, a Division II school in Atlanta, Georgia, which is also a very prominent historically-black college/university (HBCU). In his two years with the Panthers, he built a powerful program in a short period of time.
In Year 1 at Clark Atlanta, he went 21-12 and captured the SIAC (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) title and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. In his second season, the Panthers did even better by posting a 25-6 record, including a 16-3 record in SIAC play and repeated as conference champions & made another appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
When asked about his time at Clark Atlanta, he replied, “Oh, I had a ball at Clark Atlanta, HBCU school, [they] gave me my first college coaching job. I will always be indebted to Clark Atlanta, I really had two great, fun-loving years down there.”
So far, his time at Little Rock has been a process, as the Trojans went 5-8 in their non-conference schedule. When asked about the transition to Division II to Division I, he replied, “It’s no difference, it’s all about players. If you’ve got players, you have a chance to win the game. It’s about proving it at every level.”
The Trojans play at the Jack Stephens Center, which holds 5,600 spectators. Home court advantage is everything in college basketball and Walker is happy with his new environment.
“Well, the atmosphere is that they’re excited about our team, because we have a good young team, we started four freshmen against Georgetown, so it’s a lot of excitement right now,” he said.
The nucleus of the Trojans is 6-foot-5 redshirt junior guard Rayjon Tucker (20.8 points and 6.9 rebounds), 6-foot-10 freshman forward Nikola Maric (11.6 points and 4.2 rebounds), 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kris Bankston (10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds), 5-foot-8 freshman point guard Markquis Nowell (11.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds), 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Jaizec Lottie (8.6 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds), 6-foot junior shooting guard Ryan Pippins (8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds) and 6-foot-2 junior shooting guard Deondre Burns (8.7 points).
When asked of Tucker and Nowell, Walker replied, “Well, those guys can flat-out score the basketball. Rayjon is an elite athlete and Markquis is a solid point guard that can score the ball.”
In Little Rock’s first thirteen games of the season, the Trojans were battle-tested, as they faced off against programs such as Nevada, Memphis, Georgetown, Tulsa and Howard. But the true test comes when the Trojans start Sun Belt Conference play on the road against Louisiana-Monroe on January 3rd.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time, that’s all we can do. Our first two games are going to be on the road against Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette, so we’re going to have a Christmas break and get back and practice and get ready for the road.”
On December 22nd, the Trojans played a hard-fought game against the Hoyas at the Capital One Arena in Washington, DC, in which the game was highly-competitive and was sent to overtime after a three-pointer by Pippins. Although Little Rock went down 102-94, they were paced by Maric (27 points & eight rebounds), Nowell (24 points, six assists and five steals) and Tucker (16 points, 14 rebounds and four assists).
“It was a good game, it was great to go against Patrick [Ewing], back and forth, it was really, really fun,” said Walker about the game against Georgetown.
For Walker, he got the chance to coach against Patrick Ewing, the Hall of Fame player and second-year head coach at Georgetown, who was his teammate with the Knicks during the 1985-86 season. “Patrick is a teammate of mine, man. It’s definitely going to be fun to coach against Patrick.”
Now with their conference opener just a few days away, it is time for the Trojans to regroup and get ready for the battle that lies ahead. Can they get back to the NCAA Tournament? Time will tell with this group. Although there is plenty of youth on this squad, they have the willpower to get the job done. In due time, Little Rock will be a force to be reckoned with throughout the country.