Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Neighbors' outlook sunny for 2019-20
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors smiles during a WNIT third round game Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas women's basketball team doesn't figure to be ranked near the bottom in SEC preseason polls next year.
Arkansas should be picked in the top half of the rugged SEC with four starters and six of its top seven scorers returning from this season's 22-15 team that reached the WNIT quarterfinals. The Razorbacks also are adding junior transfer guard Amber Ramirez -- a McDonald's All-American who redshirted this season after averaging 10.4 points as a sophomore at TCU -- and four high school signees in a class ranked No. 11 nationally by Blue Star Sports.
"We'll take time off, but I won't take much time off," Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors said after TCU beat the Razorbacks 82-78 on Thursday night in Walton Arena. "My head's already spinning."
Neighbors said he's anticipating how the talented newcomers will mesh with the returnees and the sets they can run together.
"I would anticipate a lot of expectations next year," he said. "We'll embrace them.
"We think we're going to be competitive. So we're putting together an incredibly hard schedule and really challenging ourselves."
Guard Malica Monk, who averaged 12.7 points, was the only senior among Arkansas' starters.
The returning starters are All-SEC sophomore guard Chelsea Dungee, who averaged 20.5 points per game this season; junior guards Alexis Tolefree (10.2) and Jailyn Mason (7.9); and junior forward Kiara Williams (6.8). Also back will be sophomore guard A'Tyanna Gaulden (5.0 ) and sophomore forward Talyah Thomas (3.6).
Newcomers along with Ramirez will be forwards Marquesha Davis and Destinee Oberg and guards Makalya Daniels and Ginger Reese.
"Practices are going to be an absolute war, because of the talent," Neighbors said. "I think we'll have a roster than can compete with anybody in the SEC."
Neighbors said the toughest part about the season-ending loss to TCU was having it be the last game at Arkansas for Monk and seniors Bailey Zimmerman, Raven Northcross-Baker and Sydney Stout.
"If we ever win a championship of any kind, I'll be buying those four guys rings," Neighbors said. "All four of them, because we couldn't have jumped all those hurdles we did this season without the individual sacrifices that they all made."
Arkansas upset Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament to reach the championship game for the first time -- where the Razorbacks lost to Mississippi State -- and then made a three-game run in the NWIT with victories over Houston and Alabama-Birmingham before losing to TCU.
The Razorbacks went 6-10 in SEC play after going 2-14 in 2017 in Jimmy Dykes' last season as coach and 3-13 last season in Neighbors' first season. Arkansas was 13-17 overall during the 2016-17 season and 13-18 last season.
"I don't think when the year started that playing this late into March was even on anybody's radar," Neighbors said. "There aren't many [Arkansas] teams that have more than 22 wins."
Only twice in 28 seasons since joining the SEC have the Razorbacks won more than 22 games. They were 24-9 during the 2011-12 season and 23-7 during the 1994-95 season. This was the third season Arkansas has won 22 games as an SEC member.
"This group accomplished so, so much," Neighbors said. "And not only the number of wins, but who we did it against. It will go down as one of those years that I remember for a long, long, long time."
In three WNIT home games Arkansas had announced crowds of 3,021 for Houston, 3,868 for UAB and 4,718 for TCU.
"There's no question we captured a lot of new fans," Neighbors said. "We'll work really hard this summer to make sure we keep them."
Neighbors said a combined 6-2 record in the SEC Tournament and WNIT and the excitement generated by Arkansas' postseason success will have big benefits in recruiting.
"I think we'll start to sense that in recruiting this summer," Neighbors said. "We're working really hard in that area. I think we'll find out exactly what it did mean.
"I know know when we're sitting in homes I'm going to be able to show them pictures of crowds that are not air-brushed men's crowds. They're women's crowds. They're games that just happened. It's invaluable."
Sports on 03/30/2019
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