UA happy to step up for Baylor challenge

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, May 29, 2020
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against New Orleans on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against New Orleans on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- SEC women's basketball coaches were at the conference's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., in 2019 when the topic of the Big 12/SEC Challenge for the 2020-21 season came up.

The University of Arkansas wasn't scheduled to be part of the Challenge, which didn't sit well with Razorbacks Coach Mike Neighbors.

Who’s playing

• 2020 SEC/Big 12 Women’s Basketball Challenge matchups:

Baylor at Arkansas

South Carolina at Iowa State

Kentucky at Kansas State

Alabama at Oklahoma State

Texas A&M at Texas

Tennessee at West Virginia

Kansas at Ole Miss

Oklahoma at Georgia

TCU at Missouri

Texas Tech at Vanderbilt

"It was supposed to be our year off, and I said, 'We're going to have one of our best teams yet, and now we're not getting to play in it?' " Neighbors recalled Thursday. "[The SEC officials] looked at me and said, 'Well, you can play in it, but you're going to have to play Baylor.'

"I said, 'No problem, let's go.' "

Baylor, which won the most recent NCAA Tournament championship in 2019, will play Arkansas at Walton Arena next season in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it was announced Thursday.

A date for the game wasn't announced, but Neighbors said it likely will be played on Dec. 6, which is a Sunday.

Baylor was ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press poll when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Arkansas was ranked No. 24.

Arkansas will return four starters -- led by guards Chelsea Dungee and Amber Ramirez -- and is adding a talented recruiting class.

Baylor lost first-team All-American Lauren Cox and Te'a Cooper to the WNBA, but among the Lady Bears' returnees are senior DiDi Richards -- the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year -- and junior NaLyssa Smith, an AP honorable mention All-American and a first-team All-Big 12 player.

The Lady Bears are adding freshman Hannah Gusters, the No. 2-ranked center in the nation, and freshman Sarah Andrews, the No. 2 point guard.

Baylor is 604-100 in 20 seasons under Coach Kim Mulkey, with 18 NCAA Tournament appearances and three national championships.

"In our SEC coaches meeting, I don't know that a lot of people were lining up to want to play Baylor," Neighbors said. "But we felt like we were going to have a really good team this upcoming season, and our fans deserved a marquee nonconference matchup.

"A game like this is what we promised all our kids could happen if they'd come here to play for us. That's what I think means the most, that what we've all done together has worked. We know it's an incredible challenge that early in the season, but this game will prepare us for what promises to be the toughest SEC gauntlet there has been in the last decade."

Neighbors, going into his fourth season at Arkansas, has led the Razorbacks to a 46-23 record the past two seasons, including 24-8 last season.

"The SEC and Big 12 never would have put us together with Baylor if they didn't think we could play well and pack the house out," Neighbors said. "So I think it's a sign of respect that we're coming back around and we can fill the arena up."

Neighbors said Arkansas and Baylor are both playing in the preseason WNIT in November.

"The NIT will be tough, but if we play well enough we might have a chance to play Baylor twice," he said. "We'd both have to make it to the championship game to face each other."

Neighbors said the first-round WNIT matchups haven't been set, but that Western Kentucky and North Carolina State are on Arkansas' side of the bracket.

The Razorbacks also will play the University of Arkansas at Little Rock again next season at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, Neighbors said. The Razorbacks beat the Trojans 86-53 in North Little Rock last season.

Arkansas leads its series against Baylor 21-7, including a 68-59 victory in a first-round 2001 NCAA Tournament game at Durham, N.C., in Mulkey's first season with the Bears. Gary Blair was the Arkansas coach.

It's the only time Baylor has lost a first-round NCAA Tournament game under Mulkey, who got some revenge against Arkansas with a 73-44 victory in a 2015 second-round NCAA Tournament game at home in Waco, Texas.

Mulkey was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in April.

"It does make it that much more fun and special for our kids and coaches that [Mukley] has been recognized as one of the best to ever do it," Neighbors said. "It makes you want to play well, that's for sure."

The Big 12/SEC Challenge also includes a Texas A&M at Texas matchup with Blair -- the Aggies' coach -- going against new Longhorns Coach Vic Schafer, his former assistant at Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Who’s playing

2020 SEC/Big 12 Women’s Basketball

Challenge matchups:

Baylor at Arkansas

South Carolina at Iowa State

Kentucky at Kansas State

Alabama at Oklahoma State

Texas A&M at Texas

Tennessee at West Virginia

Kansas at Ole Miss

Oklahoma at Georgia

TCU at Missouri

Texas Tech at Vanderbilt

Sports on 05/29/2020

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