The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs had a tremendous season last year. Reigning Conference USA Coach of the Year Eric Konkol addressed the obstacles the team had to overcome. He also discussed the high expectations heading into this season.
Louisiana Tech Looks to Keep the Momentum and Take the Next Step
Winter wonderlands are normally not affiliated with Ruston, Louisiana. The town averages 0.4 inches of snowfall per year compared to the national average of 27.8. In February 2021, the world continued to get stranger as the region was hit with a massive storm.
Flurries dropped and blanketed the humid plains of Ruston. Children basked in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hurl snowballs and form angels. Adult drivers learned how to battle through icy asphalt and find warmth in the bitter chill. This February storm was the only obstacle to force a cancellation for the Louisiana Tech men’s basketball team last season. It certainly couldn’t stop their strong play.
Konkol explained, “My first time here we had a snowstorm that didn’t melt for a week. We couldn’t get out, there were no flights, there was no way of driving there. Oddly enough, in a year where there were cancellations from COVID, we had none, but even here in Louisiana we had snow and had to cancel a game.”
A Big Postseason for the Bulldogs
Before the storm hit, the Bulldogs won nine of their previous 11 games. They earned back-to-back victories against conference rival UAB heading into their forced pause. Though they didn’t have a game for two weeks, they picked up where they left off, defeating Rice 101-57. They didn’t lose again until the C-USA Tournament semifinals against North Texas.
Konkol posted his best overall record during his sixth year at the helm for Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs shared the C-USA regular-season title with Western Kentucky, which earned them an invitation to the NIT. They made sure the rest of the tournament knew they arrived.
The Bulldogs upset one-seed Ole Miss 70-61, then took care of their fellow C-USA season champs, defeating the Hilltoppers 72-65. After a loss to Mississippi State in the NIT semifinals, Louisiana Tech had to turn around and face Colorado State the next night, another one-seed just weeks removed from having their bubble burst on Selection Sunday. In the first NIT consolation game in 20-plus years, the Bulldogs defeated the Rams in a thriller, 76-74—the school’s best postseason finish in 35 years.
Konkol said of his players, “Being able to turn the page, I give our guys so much credit for their positivity and their resolve to find a way.”
The success of Louisiana Tech’s season came in the midst of our generation’s most uncertain time.
Louisiana Tech was Fortunate
The looming doubt derived from COVID-19 affected the players’ academics and athletics and altered the way coaching staffs had to prepare. The Bulldogs avoided a COVID-related pause and remained poised during unsettling times.
“We were very fortunate, we didn’t have any shutdowns, we didn’t have any positive tests that took us away from games and practices,” Konkol recalled. “It was a year like no other. We were flying the plane as we were making it. As a head coach, you like to have answers for guys, but we just didn’t have it. We just did the best we could, and that was powerful for us.”
Even though Louisiana Tech was fortunate to avoid any COVID-related issues or health concerns, the mental toll it took on the players and staff still existed. They worried for friends and families. Student-athletes adopted new classroom and lesson formats. For the incoming freshman, being away from home for the first time coinciding with a pandemic was difficult for them to accept.
“I was just impressed and appreciative of the guys for the level of maturity they had and their motivation to keep each other safe, and also their motivation to pursue their best. I give our players so much credit for being flexible, being resilient, and putting their trust in our staff.”
The coaches and medical personnel stayed positive. Their composure and assurance trickled down to the players which provided some relief on both ends.
“We just got to control what we can control. I thought this staff and the players really did a good job of that. The health and safety of our players remain at the top of our priorities, and, of course, their academics and basketball, and we want to do our best to keep pushing forward.”
A New Season for Louisiana Tech Men’s Basketball
Now college basketball teams, along with all athletic programs, know somewhat how to adapt to the challenges that may surface once again. Konkol has developed a comfortable and confident atmosphere for his players to work in. Because of this foundation, the Bulldogs look to build off the success of last season.
The league is loaded and should be considered one of the best mid-major conferences in the nation. Not only did Louisiana Tech represent C-USA by finishing third in the NIT, but Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey was in All-American contention and North Texas stunned Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This wasn’t the first time C-USA made a recent splash in the Big Dance, however. In 2016, Middle Tennessee State had a historic upset over two-seed Michigan State. The next year they advanced to the second round as a 12-seed, defeating another Big 10 foe in Minnesota. C-USA has won a game five out of six years in the NCAA Tournament. The league should not be overlooked, and power conferences should be on high alert.
“I think we’ve got a great conference, and I thought last year, top to bottom, it’s the best it has been since I’ve been here,” Konkol shared. “We’re all fighting to get more teams in [the NCAA Tournament], and maybe this could be the year because I think there’s going to be a lot of depth and a lot of really good teams.”
Last year’s star freshman Kenneth Lofton Jr. is beginning his sophomore campaign, starters Isaiah Crawford and Cobe Williams are returning, veteran Bulldogs Amorie Archibald and Exavian Christon are set to provide leadership as fifth-year seniors, and a talented incoming class built chemistry with the team over the summer.
The Bulldogs have posted winning records in all six seasons under Konkol, including five years of 20-plus victories, earning the coach an extension through 2025-26. He also took home C-USA Coach of the Year honors for his team’s performance last year.
Konkol explained, “My expectations are always the highest, and that comes down to how we operate every single day. You got to have a little bit of luck, you got to obviously be good, and then you got to play well. We’re going to keep focusing on what gives us the best chance to do that. Without a doubt, this program has high expectations and we love that.”
He added, “This is a really special place here, and we’re excited about our future.”
Louisiana Tech is a balanced squad, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The team ranked 50th in the nation in scoring defense, 26th in opponent’s 3-point percentage, and 18th in defensive rebounding. With that stingy defense and balanced offense, a good coach in Konkol, and great competition in a tough league, the Bulldogs are set to make some noise en route to another successful season.
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