Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
UA women (13-0) impress on paper, now SEC begins
Arkansas' Calli Berna dribbles the ball during the second half of the game against Mississippi Valley State in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Saturday December 28, 2013.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas, a paper powerhouse for the first two months of the women’s basketball season, is hoping its hot start doesn’t stall out with another SEC also-ran finish.
The Razorbacks (13-0), the only remaining unbeaten SEC team, have hardly been challenged heading into today’s 7 p.m. SEC opener against No. 13 South Carolina (12-1) at Walton Arena.
Arkansas has won its games by an average margin of 33 points, the nation’s third-highest scoring margin.
“You can’t do anything better than 13-0 in nonconference, and you can’t really play a whole lot better than we’ve played,” Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said. “You look at us on paper and we’re a juggernaut.
“That doesn’t mean we are,but that’s the way we look on paper right now. … It’s time to play against a great team night in and night out and figure out where we stand.”
The Razorbacks have been unbeaten twice before heading into SEC play during Collen’s seven seasons, with a 15-0 start in 2007-2008 and a 12-0 start in 2010-11. Both of those teams lost their SEC openers by 10 or more points and went on to finish below .500 in conference games and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
The 2008 team lost its best player Lauren Ervin to a season-ending knee injury during a season-opening loss to LSU in its SEC opener and finished 2-12 in conference play. The 2011 team went 6-10 in the SEC and lost in the WNIT quarterfinals.
Preseason polls projected Collen’s Razorbacks to finish 12th in the 14-team conference, which has provided the Razorbacks a strong source of motivation.
“I feel like we do have a lot to prove because I know we’re better than ranked No. 12,” senior forward Keira Peak said. “We’ve just got a lot to prove.”
The addition of three freshmen - forward Jessica Jackson, three-point specialist McKenzie Adams and versatile guard Kelsey Brooks - has bolstered a returning nucleus, formed by Peak and juniors Calli Berna and Jhasmin Bowen to give this Arkansas team a different feel heading into conference.
“I think this is one of the more talented teams we’ve had,” Collen said. “We’re certainly a young team, and we need to get some more experience. There’s no question about that.
“We certainly want to show up right away. … We want to be able to prove to people that our record is not a fluke, that we’re a pretty good basketball team.”
Arkansas is 4-18 in SEC openers since joining the conference, but 12 of those losses were to ranked teams, including five to Tennessee teams ranked in the top five.
South Carolina is a notch below Tennessee, but the Gamecocks have been nearly as dominant as the Razorbacks, posting an average winning margin of 28.7 points per game that ranks second in the SEC behind the Razorbacks and seventh nationally. Their only loss came 74-66 to No. 11 North Carolina.
Strong defense has been the common denominator for Arkansas and South Carolina, suggesting a repeat of last year’s 43-40 South Carolina victory at Walton Arena in the only meeting between the teams. They will play twice this year.
Arkansas leads the nation, allowing 44.6 points per game; South Carolina is third, giving up 48.3 points per game.
“Traditionally, these games with South Carolina are in the mid-40s,” Collen said, “so it’s pretty hard to score against good defensive teams. … I would anticipate, not a game in the 40s, but I think you’re going to see areal defensive struggle. Two teams that scout each other very well. Two teams that defend awfully well.”
Arkansas’ tightest game was a 64-53 victory at Kansas.
“I know when we played Kansas it was like a whole different tempo, and they’ve said that’s not even half of what we’re going to see [in the SEC],” Adams said. “I guess we’re just going to have to experience it to see what it’s like.”
Collen said he set up Arkansas’ schedule for one overriding purpose.
“We’ve got a young team, so we schedule the way we have to schedule to set ourselves up to be able to get into the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “Really, I don’t think this schedule could have set up any more perfect for us.” Staff writer Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this report.
UA women (13-0)
DATE OPPONENT TIME/RESULT
Nov. 8 Sam Houston State W, 81-45
Nov. 13 Oral Roberts W, 91-33
Nov. 16 Furman W, 74-45
Nov. 19 Middle Tennessee W, 66-51
Nov. 22 Missouri State W, 78-44
Nov. 24 Western Michigan W, 61-46
Nov. 29 SE Missouri State# W, 88-37
Nov. 30 Binghamton# W, 72-23
Dec. 4 at Kansas W, 64-53
Dec. 7 Northwestern State W, 74-53
Dec. 10 Tulsa W, 81-43
Dec. 20 Tennessee Tech W, 79-53
Dec. 28 Miss. Valley State W, 100-54
Jan. 2 South Carolina * 7 p.m.
Jan. 5 at Missouri * 2 p.m.
Jan. 9 at Florida * 6 p.m.
Jan. 12 Mississippi State * 2 p.m.
Jan. 15 at Georgia * 6 p.m.
Jan. 19 Ole Miss * 2 p.m.
Jan. 26 at Kentucky * noon
Jan. 30 at Tennessee * 6 p.m.
Feb. 2 Auburn * 2 p.m.
Feb. 6 Florida * 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 at South Carolina * 1 p.m.
Feb. 13 Alabama * 7 p.m.
Feb. 20 Vanderbilt * 7 p.m.
Feb. 23 at LSU * 1 p.m.
Feb. 27 at Texas A&M * 7 p.m.
March 2 Missouri * 2 p.m.
March 5-9 SEC Tournament Duluth, Ga. #New Mexico Tournament * SEC game
EAST Boston College 81, Mount St. Mary’s 67 Butler 68, Providence 65 Creighton 65, Georgetown 63, OT Duquesne 73, St. Bonaventure 65 Hofstra 60, Albany (NY) 56 Louisville 77, Temple 68
SOUTH Connecticut 77, Cent. Florida 49 Georgia St. 85, Troy 77 Hampton 70, Virginia Tech 60 Jacksonville St. 60, Samford 54 Penn 67, Miami 66 South Alabama 74, W. Kentucky 65
MIDWEST DePaul 87, Xavier 60 Green Bay 72, Maine 49 SMU 54, Cincinnati 43 Wis.-Stout 60, St. Joseph’s (Ind.) 57
FAR WEST Fresno St. 79, UNLV 63
Sports, Pages 13 on 01/02/2014