University of Arkansas womens basketball Coach Mike Neighbors enters this season with high expectations for his team, but the No. 14 Razorbacks will be tested early in SEC play.
Arkansas, which returns four starters from a team that finished 24-8, starts SEC play against nationally ranked opponents in three of its first six league games, beginning at No 11 Kentucky on Dec. 31, as the entire SEC schedule was released Friday.
The Razorbacks will play Missouri on Jan. 3 in the SEC home opener, then meet No. 13 Texas A&M on Jan. 10 and Florida on Jan. 14 in Walton Arena. They will travel to Knoxville to play Tennessee on Jan. 7 and then at top-ranked South Carolina on Jan. 18.
Were gonna find out right where were at, Neighbors said. Those first six games are pretty tough. Thats four of the top six teams in the league Well find out real quick.
Arkansas hasnt released its full nonconference schedule yet, but other teams have the Razorbacks listed on their schedules already. Defending national champion Baylor will come to Walton Arena on Dec. 6 per the teams website, while Arkansas is slated to play Florida Gulf Coast and Maryland on Nov. 28-29 as part of the Gulf Coast Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla.
I think once you see the full schedule, youll see we will be plenty challenged in the non-conference, too. I think once everyones schedule comes out, ours will be as good as anybody in the country.
Neighbors also said the Razorbacks will play the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Central Arkansas and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Assembling a schedule is difficult under normal circumstances, but doing so during a pandemic takes that to a different level, Neighbors said.
Scheduling is like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle in any normal year, youve got puzzle pieces everywhere, Neighbors said. This year its like youre putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, and you dont know what the pictures supposed to look like.
He acknowledged safety for all was obviously a top concern during a pandemic, but there were several questions that had to be answered in constructing a nonconference slate.
Is it gonna help us when we get to the league? Neighbors said. Is it a good safety thing, and is it gonna help our league?
Dont put yourself in a dangerous situation by going to places or playing an opponent that may be high risk. Staying regional and playing people who are doing the same testing.
Arkansas returns four starters from last years team that finished 24-8 and was on track for an NCAA Tournament berth before college basketball was shut down because of covid-19. Senior Jailyn Mason, who started 97 games in her first three seasons, also returns after red-shirting last season because of an injury.
In addition, Destiny Slocum, a graduate transfer from Oregon State and should team with Chelsea Dungee and Amber Ramirez to be one of the top backcourts in the country. All that experience led to Arkansas earning its highest preseason ranking (No. 14), since it debuted at No. 10 in 1995.
The challenging schedule fits for a team with high expectations, Neighbors said.
Our kids play better with a challenge, Neighbors said. Weve got experience and quality depth with this group. If you dont challenge them they get bored and then they backslide.
Our expectations are really high, so when you have a good team you play good people. I think we have a good team. I dont know if we have a great team. If we look up at the end of this year and weve got 24 wins, were gonna have a great team.
The number of losses has never concerned Neighbors. His Washington team that went all the way to the Final Four lost 11 games.
We always want to peak in March, Neighbors said. I do believe this team has a chance to play against anybody. Were gonna find out. We will have played five games against teams that have won a national championship in the last 15 years.
At a glance
UA WOMENS BASKETBALL
Dec. 31 at Kentucky Jan. 3 Missouri Jan. 7 at Tennessee Jan. 10 Texas A&M Jan. 14 Florida Jan. 18 at South Carolina Jan. 25 at Georgia Jan. 28 Vanderbilt Jan. 31 Auburn Feb. 4 at Missouri Feb. 11 Mississippi State Feb. 14 at Texas A&M Feb. 18 Ole Miss Feb. 21 at LSU Feb. 25 at Auburn Feb. 28 Alabama
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