UA women put growth to test in Italy

By: Matt Jones
Published: Wednesday, August 8, 2018
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors directs his players against Abilene Christian Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors directs his players against Abilene Christian Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena.

— Mike Neighbors is getting a head start in Year Two of his rebuilding project at Arkansas.

After two days of sightseeing in Italy, Neighbors' Razorbacks will play the first of three international exhibition games Thursday at 11:30 a.m. CST in Rome. Arkansas' opponent is Deep 3 Select, a popular foe for visiting college teams. Mississippi State, the two-time defending national runner-up, will play the same team Saturday.

Teams are allowed to take an international exhibition trip every four years. Arkansas players went to Italy in 2014 and Neighbors took his Washington team to Australia in 2016. The trips allow a team to practice 15 times in addition to the 30 practices that are allowed in the 40-day preseason.

As much as the trips are an early start for basketball, they are more of a chance to build team chemistry, Neighbors said. That is especially important for this year's Razorbacks, which have two freshmen and three eligible transfers.

"You always try to (go on an international trip at a) time it when you have a bunch of newcomers coming in, which is exactly what we have," Neighbors said. "You never try to time it when you have a veteran team.

"When you're with somebody for 10 days, you learn a lot about them. I think it's always important to time it when you need to immerse some people in the team culture."

Arkansas practiced 10 times in Fayetteville over about two weeks before the team left for Italy on Monday. Neighbors was pleased with the intensity he saw in the Razorbacks' workouts and now will have a chance to see how that translates against a different opponent.

Notably, Arkansas' roster will include a pair of redshirt sophomore guards, Chelsea Dungee and A'Tyanna Gaulden, who practiced with the team last year but were ineligible after transferring from Oklahoma and Florida State, respectively.

"Neither one of them viewed it as an off year," Neighbors said. "A lot of times kids in that situation will look at it that way. They looked at it as a growth year and an understanding year, and a learn-the-system year."

Arkansas also received a transfer from junior college guard Alexis Tolefree, a three-point threat from Conway who also had an offer from Mississippi State. Tolefree will be eligible to play immediately.

"She can really shoot," Dungee said. "There is always room for a good shooter.

"I think the freshmen we've added and the transfers we've added give us more depth. Last year, not having someone to sub for you or feeling like there's not someone on your heels, it's difficult to push yourself in moments like that."

Neighbors is building his program up through transfers. Malvern-native Raven Northcross-Baker, a forward, averaged 5.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game after transferring from a junior college last season, and guard Amber Ramirez made the international trip after transferring from TCU. Ramirez was a McDonald's All-American in 2017 and will be ineligible in the coming season, but eligible to play in the exhibitions.

"Chelsea and IT (Gaulden) are making it OK to come to Arkansas - two top 25 national recruits saying yes, and then you get a McDonald's All-American coming in the next class," Neighbors said. "I just think anytime you get a chance to get a mature kid, you take the mature kid... I'd rather take a junior college or a transfer, even if they aren't able to play."

Arkansas was 13-18 overall last season and 3-13 in SEC games, with a number of close losses. Neighbors is hopeful his team can find a way to win a close game in Italy.

"My first high school team got that big win at a summer camp," Neighbors said of his time as a head coach at Bentonville High School in the 1990s. "We beat Greenland and you would have thought we won the national championship at Pea Ridge on July 30. But that was the switch for us. We were 1-24 the year before but then we got that win and it just became expected."

The Razorbacks will continue to explore Italy over the weekend. The final two exhibitions are against a team called Italian Select near Florence on Monday, and against the International All-Stars in Lake Como on Wednesday.

"I'm so much more worried about what we do than who we're playing against," Neighbors said. "I just want it to be somebody that will give us a challenge."

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