NEW SEASON: Trojans finish non-conference season with a 5-5 record, ready for conference opener
Published 3:00 am Thursday, December 24, 2015
The Troy Trojans began the season with a lot of questions, and on the cusp of conference play they have more clarity.
After picking up a big season-opening win on the road against South Florida, the Trojans struggled with the University of Alabama-Birmingham, falling to the Blazers 79-63. After finishing the Mean Green Showcase with an 86-74 win over host North Texas, the Trojans defeated Southern Mississippi before falling to Austin Peay and Seton Hall.
Head coach Phil Cunningham believes his team is better because of the tough start, despite the 5-5 record.
“We played a very challenging schedule,” Cunningham said. “We wanted to create a schedule that really tested us and to get us ready for conference play. I think we are close to where we thought we would be.”
One major question mark was how new players would respond to Division 1.
“We had six guys that have never played Division 1 basketball before,” Cunningham said. “Until they actually went against competition, we really didn’t know what to expect.”
One of those newcomers is freshman forward Jordon Varnado. The 6 foot, 6 inch forward has averaged 17.7 points per game while hauling 8.3 rebounds per game. He also has posted five double-doubles in the first 10 games.
Even with the stellar play by Varnado and others, the Trojans have largely been inconsistent. Cunningham points to the team’s youth.
“It’s part of it,” Cunningham said. “We thought that would be a characteristic of this team early, but now we need to settle into a groove because this league is so good this year.”
This is one of the deepest pools in recent Sun Belt Conference history, he said.
“The big challenge for us right now is we need guys coming off the bench and really stepping up and adding something to the mix,” Cunningham said. “B.J. Miller has been really consistent coming off the bench, but outside of that the other guys are all over the place in terms of their contributions.”
A common ingredient in any successful team is a quality sixth man to come off the bench. According to Cunningham, Shawn Hopkins is one of those players.
“He isn’t a guy that has had many opportunities,” Cunningham said. “When you are playing in so many close games, it’s hard to play a freshman. We appreciate his talent. He is a talented young man. We don’t have a big athletic wing that can make shots and he is that.”
Cunningham hopes Hopkins can help haul in rebounds both offensively and defensively.
“We have to keep developing our mentality of defending and rebounding,” Cunningham said. “We are giving up too high of a field goal percentage defensively. Recently against Austin Peay and Seton Hall we have given up too many offensive rebounds. We have to be a team that has a balance in a sense that we can offset what our opponents do.”
The Trojans kick off their conference schedule Dec. 30 when they host Arkansas State at 7:30 p.m.