Razorbacks women set sights on NCAA Tournament

NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Head coach Mike Neighbors talks to his team during practice Monday Oct. 1, 2018 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Senior Bailey Zimmerman didn't mince words about her expectations for this year's University of Arkansas women's basketball team at Monday's media day in Bud Walton Arena.

She wants to end the Razorbacks' three-year NCAA Tournament drought.

"We want to make it to the tournament this year. That's our goal," said Zimmerman, who started all 31 games a year ago. "Me and Mal [Malica Monk] haven't done that in the four years we've been here. So that's what we're really looking forward to. We kinda want to go out with a bang, and that's what we're gonna do."

Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors said his team is ahead of schedule in many ways thanks to a 10-day trip to Italy in August, which included three games against international competition.

"We got to take care of so many things on and off the court in August that would not have normally come up until November," he said. "Plus experience the cultural, life-changing things that Italy brings you. We're better on the court. We're much better off the court, and we're so far down that checklist of things you always worry about as a coach."

Neighbors said he will have a much deeper and faster team in his second season at the helm in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks return four of their top five scorers and 10 letter winners from last year's team that finished 13-18 overall and 3-13 in the SEC.

Transfers Chelsea Dungee (Oklahoma) and A'Tyanna Gaulden (Florida State), who both sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, are expected to make big contributions.

Gaulden, a 5-7 sophomore, and senior Malica Monk will give opponents all sorts of matchup problems because of their quickness, along with junior-college transfer and Conway native Alexis Tolefree, Neighbors said

"They're gonna play together some, and that makes it incredibly hard to match up with," Neighbors said. "Because if you don't put your fastest one on Mal, she's gonna shoot layups. So now I.T. [Gaulden] might get their second-fastest kid and she's so strong that if you're getting the other team's second best perimeter defender, you can't keep her out of the paint.

"There's nobody, including Mal, that can keep her in front. She can get the ball in the paint and good things happen for us when that happens. What you have is some incredibly tough matchups on the perimeter if they are together because Tolefree might be faster than both of those two."

Monk led the team in scoring last season, averaging 15.9 points per game, but the 5-5 senior also led in minutes played. Neighbors hopes Gaulden can spell Monk at the point some to make her more effective overall.

"Mal had to play 40 minutes a night for us," Neighbors said. "I think this year, Mal plays 35 more effective minutes because I.T. can take it for five or six or seven, and you can even move Mal off the ball from time to time."

Neighbors said his team needs to be better at getting points in the paint, and that's where Dungee -- who made the Big 12 All-Freshman team two years ago -- should help.

"Chelsea Dungee brings you that," Neighbors said. "She's not 6-5, but she's 5-11 and she's tough."

The Razorbacks are better shooters, and Neighbors has the numbers to back up that statement.

"We had one player last year making over 50 percent of their shots in practice," Neighbors said. "This year, we have seven kids over 50 percent, four over 60 percent and one shooting 70 percent. That's live-action, game-charted drills. We made 17 three-pointers in a game in Italy."

Keiryn Swenson has decided to forgo her senior season on the court because of medical issues, Neighbors said. But the Razorbacks could get help from Erynn Barnum, a 6-2 freshman from Little Rock, who is practicing but has not been cleared by the NCAA for competition.

Sports on 10/02/2018