Razorbacks open preseason with higher expectations

By: Seth Campbell
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2019
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors talks to his team during practice Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors talks to his team during practice Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.

— Arkansas women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors starts every practice by reminding his team where it has been, where it is and where it is going.

Where the Razorbacks have been is bleak. Arkansas has not finished above .500 in conference play since the 2011-12 season.

Where they are is hopeful.

“We are better than we were this time last year,” Neighbors said. “Every single roster spot is better than this time last year.”

Where they’re going? That question caused Neighbors to smile.

“I think the expectations are higher than they’ve been in our locker room for a while,” Neighbors said.

Pittsburg State at Arkansas

WHEN 7 p.m., Thursday

WHERE Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville

LAST SEASON’S RECORDS Arkansas 22-15; Pittsburg State 21-9

ON THE AIR KQSM-FM 92.1 in Fayetteville; KFPW-AM 1230 and KFPW-FM 94.5 in Fort Smith; KURM-AM 790 and KURM-FM 100.3 in Rogers

ADMISSION Adults $5; 17-and-under $3

DOORS OPEN 6 p.m.

NOTEWORTHY Redshirt junior A’Tyanna Gaulden (knee), senior Jailyn Mason (foot) and junior Macy Weaver (knee) won’t play in tonight’s exhibition game, Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said. …. Gaulden has progressed to doing non-contact drills after offseason knee surgery and is expected to be ready for the season opener Nov. 8. … Mason is still in a cast after suffering a tendon injury, and her timetable to return is still uncertain, Neighbors said. … Freshman Destinee Oberg’s status for tonight is also uncertain after having wisdom teeth pulled earlier in the week. … Neighbors said the focus will be transition offense and transition defense in tonight’s exhibition game. “If you don’t start there, with us none of the rest matters,” Neighbors said. … The Pitt State Gorillas will travel to Allen Fieldhouse to take on Kansas on Saturday. … Pitt State returns four starters and is picked to finish third in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association by the media and fourth by the league’s coaches in preseason polls. … Shania Wilson, who graduated from Bentonville West in the spring, is one of three freshmen on the Gorillas’ roster.

-Paul Boyd

The Razorbacks begin their 2019-20 schedule Thursday with a 7 p.m. exhibition game against Pittsburg State (Kan.) at Bud Walton Arena. It is the first of two exhibition games this preseason for Arkansas, which will also host Oklahoma City on Oct. 30.

Senior guard Jailyn Mason doesn’t need to be reminded how far the Razorbacks have come. She experienced it.

Mason and fellow senior Kiara Williams are the only two holdovers from the previous coaching staff. They were freshmen when Jimmy Dykes was fired as the Razorbacks’ coach following the 2016-17 season.

“Being here for four years, seeing the progression of our teams it has skyrocketed since I’ve been here,” Mason said.

Mason has started every game but one her first three years. She shot 39% from the field and just over 35% from 3-point range in her first season, and earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team in 2017.

It did not translate into team wins, though. During Mason’s first two years in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks won only five SEC games.

Things began to turn last season when Arkansas finished 22-15, defeated Tennessee on the road and upset South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, and advanced to the third round of the WNIT in the second season under Neighbors.

The change in the Razorbacks' fortunes were due in part to the addition of guard Chelsea Dungee, an elite scorer and playmaker. But Mason did her part by playing the second most minutes on the team (1,111), shooting the second-best field goal clip (41%) and leading the team in 3-point shooting (38%).

The change put the Razorbacks in unfamiliar territory, on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament after advancing to the championship game of the SEC Tournament.

“I had to explain what RPI meant to (former Razorback guard Malica Monk); she had no idea,” Neighbors said. “They didn’t know what any of that stuff meant because it hadn’t been relative in their world.”

While there haven’t been any magic carpet rides, Neighbors and is staff have opened up a new world to the players, a world where success is expected.

“Honestly I think every team needs to watch out for us at this point,” Mason said. “I mean, I’m going to be honest, I’m not trying to be cocky about this team, but it is something special that we’re bringing this year.”

Neighbors isn’t afraid to talk about expectations, rankings and success with his team.

“If you don’t talk about it, then you can’t expect it,” he said.

The expectations are there - the Razorbacks are predicted to finish fifth in the SEC this year - but sometimes expectations don’t always meet reality. Ask Mason, who was gearing up for her senior season only to be sidelined by injury about a month ago when she hurt her foot in practice. She tore a tendon and is “out for a little bit, just taking it day-by-day.”

Neighbors said a timetable will not be set for Mason’s return until her cast comes off. A date for that task hasn’t been decided either.

During her time away, Mason is focused on encouraging her teammates and helping from the sideline. Neighbors said she’s been a leader even though she can’t step on the court.

The coach can tell the team’s hard work is beginning to pay off.

“When you start getting negative recruited it means you’re making some noise, and we’re starting to get some of that,” Neighbors said. “So it means we’ve caught some people’s attention.”

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