UA women face challenge in Virgin Islands

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during an exhibition game against Arkansas-Fort Smith on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas women's basketball team escaped cold weather this week and hopes to make the most of it both on and off the court.

The Razorbacks traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday and will play three consecutive days in the Paradise Jam, beginning today. The way sixth-year Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors sees it, it's a no-brainer for his team to enjoy its stay on the island.

"We're going to have fun," Neighbors said. "I made that determination 15 years ago on trips when we would go someplace tropical and all we saw was hotel rooms because we were on a 'business trip.' Well, if we're going to take a business trip, let's take it some place that's not gorgeous, maybe a place people aren't going to get to go once in a lifetime."

It's Arkansas' second time competing in the event. The team also did in 2002, winning two of three games that year. The annual Thanksgiving classic is hosted at University of the Virgin Islands, which is located on St. Thomas Island.

"We will definitely experience the Virgin Islands and everything that goes with it, then turn our attention to playing when it's time," Neighbors said.

After two days on the island without games, the Razorbacks play Northern Arizona (3-2) today at 4:45 p.m. Central.

With a win, Arkansas (5-0) would have its best start to a season under Neighbors. While that reward is a possibility, the difficult tournament field also poses much risk.

"When you sign up for the Paradise Jam, you are bringing 0-3 into play," Neighbors said. "That's just the way the Paradise Jam works -- it's certainly on the table when you put your schedule together."

Northern Arizona is coached by Loree Payne. Her team lost its opening games to Arizona State (69-68) and No. 19 Arizona (113-56) before rattling off three wins in a row. She is a familiar face for Neighbors, who coached at the University of Washington prior to Arkansas.

"I go way back with Loree Payne," Neighbors said. "When I was in Seattle, Loree was the coach at Seattle Pacific right across town. She's a former UW Huskies player. She's an alum. She's got an up-tempo style and has really built a cool little niche there. They have a very clear identity of what type of players they're going to bring in. They're starting to peak with back-to-back 100-point games."

Arkansas will also face Clemson and No. 25 Kansas State. Neighbors said his team's early season schedule has provided different styles of play, something which should be of benefit in a multi-team event.

"When you're going to play with short turnaround, scouting becomes less valuable." Neighbors said. "You can't do as much of it. You have to believe in and rely on your training. Having played against a very diverse style of play and diverse situations and conditions, we're getting on the plane feeling very confident."

Clemson (3-1) won its first three games of the year before top-ranked and in-state rival South Carolina handily defeated the Tigers 85-31. Kansas State (5-0) surged into the latest Associated Press poll after knocking off Wisconsin and then-No. 4 Iowa in back-to-back contests.

The Razorbacks and Wildcats play in the Paradise Jam finale at 7 p.m. Saturday. Kansas State is Arkansas' first ranked opponent of the season.

"Day three-of-three you're going to be playing on adrenaline anyways," Neighbors said. "It's probably good [that's when] you'll be playing the team that's ranked this week. Maybe it gives you a little extra energy playing on that last day when your legs are tired. It's probably the first game that we'll be an underdog in. It's going to be fun to see how our kids respond."

While Neighbors acknowledged the Razorbacks' island itinerary may differ from opposing teams, he expects a positive response on the court.

"Once you get down there, everyone's going to be doing it a different way. I know how we're going to do it, and I know our kids will appreciate it. I think as a result they will play really hard for us."