Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Opponents like Syracuse don't come often
A near-capacity crowd is expected for Friday's game against Syracuse.
FAYETTEVILLE In a sport where the norm has become to play your marquee nonconference games off campus, basketball fans should rejoice for ESPN.
The network's push for early season head-to-head matchups between the Big Ten and ACC, and Southeastern Conference and Big East creates fascinating contests we probably wouldn't see otherwise. Already this week we've seen the likes of North Carolina at Indiana, Ohio State at Duke and Kentucky at Notre Dame.
Tonight, Arkansas and Bud Walton Arena take center stage when the Razorbacks host No. 6 Syracuse in one of the most unique nonconference games ever in the venue's 20-year history. The game is part of the SEC/Big East Challenge, which began as an invitational with the two leagues playing at a neutral site five years ago, but was expanded to include as many teams and campuses as possible last year.
Syracuse, which will join the ACC next season, plays very few games away from home, meaning this game wouldn't have happened otherwise.
It marks the fourth straight year Arkansas has competed against a team from the Big East, but the first time at home. The Razorbacks lost to Louisville in St. Louis in 2009, beat Seton Hall in Louisville a year later and lost at UConn last season.
Friday will mark just the third time a current Big East - which in basketball is on par with SEC football - team has ever visited Bud Walton Arena. Providence was the last to do so in 1999.
It will be just the 19th game ever played there against a team from a conference associated with the Bowl Championship Series in football. Of those games, 11 have been against either regional rivals Missouri, Oklahoma or Texas.
Arkansas has hosted Memphis five times and Cincinnati and Louisville once at Bud Walton Arena, but those games were prior to the schools' affiliation with the Big East.
In January of this year, Michigan became the first Big Ten school to play at the arena in a home-and-home matchup that was made for CBS. Arizona was the only Pac-12 team to visit the facility, considered one of the nation's best, in 1995.
Instead, the nationwide trend has been to play name nonconference opponents in neutral sites. Among the teams paraded through North Little Rock in the last decade are Illinois, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech. Arkansas has returned the favor playing those teams in Chicago, Tulsa and Dallas.
But those games lack the atmosphere seen at home, in particular because of the absence of students. Win or lose, Arkansas coaches will be able to point to Friday's crowd for recruiting purposes.
There are still upper-level tickets available for the game, but attendance should be close to the 19,200-seat capacity. As of Friday morning, some students were already camped outside the arena's doors.
A win could do wonders on the recruiting trail, as well as for an Arkansas team coming off a pair of disappointing losses in Las Vegas. The Orange are an elite team, returning several players from last season when it was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won a school-record 34 games.
Syracuse is one of several notable opponents with games at the arena this year, comprising a very good home schedule for season ticket holders. Others include Oklahoma on Tuesday and conference games against Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.
Last week's basketball results and the uncertainty surrounding the Razorbacks' football coach seem to have detracted from the hype for Friday's game, but it can't take away from its uniqueness.
A CLOSER LOOK
Prior to Friday, Arkansas has played only 18 games against opponents from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 at Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks are 11-7 in those games.
Jan. 21, 2012 - Arkansas 66, Michigan 64
Dec. 1, 2010 - Arkansas 84, Oklahoma 74
Jan. 5, 2010 - Texas 96, Arkansas 85
Jan. 6, 2009 - Arkansas 67, Texas 61
Dec. 30, 2008 - Arkansas 96, Oklahoma 88
Nov. 28, 2007 - Arkansas 94, Missouri 91
Dec. 2, 2005 - Arkansas 66, Missouri 63
Dec. 20, 2003 - Oklahoma State 73, Arkansas 58
Nov. 30, 2001 - Oklahoma 69, Arkansas 54
Nov. 16, 2001 - Wake Forest 76, Arkansas 71
Dec. 20, 1999 - Wake Forest 70, Arkansas 64
Dec. 7, 1999 - Oklahoma 66, Arkansas 52
Jan. 23, 1999 - Arkansas 118, Providence 79
March 17, 1997 - Arkansas 76, Pittsburgh 71
Dec. 6, 1997 - Arkansas 75, Missouri 46
Dec. 5, 1995 - Arkansas 94, Missouri 83
Nov. 17, 1995 - Arizona 83, Arkansas 73
Dec. 2, 1993 - Arkansas 120, Missouri 68