Noting the smoke throughout the season, some of us saw this coming.
Even though the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears had an undefeated 16-0 run at home and a 14-2 run to the regular-season Southland Conference championship, they appeared to be a team vulnerable to an early round upset.
The Sugar Bears had played with fire all season. Odds were, they were going to get burned badly sooner or later. They did not play as well away from the Farris Center. They were a chronically slow-starting team, putting themselves in a hole in many a first half — including a 16-point first-half deficit against Nicholls State at Thibodaux.
If a team could disrupt the UCA’s rhythm when the Sugar Bears made a run, UCA was beatable.
The Sugar Bears are a team with great chemistry but not a dominating team.
Tuesday in the first round of the SLC tournament, the UCA women were thrown out of sync and ran into a buzzsaw. Nicholls State played one of the great games in its history and hit 14 3-pointers on the way to a 79-59 victory. The Colonels held UCA’s leading scorer, Megan Herbert, scoreless the first half. Their assist-to-turnovers ratio was 24 to 5.
A factor certainly was forward Desiree Rogers going down early with a knee injury. She may be the most difficult player on the UCA roster to fully replace, particularly on the fly. The Sugar Bears have no player on the bench who can match Rogers’ length, quickness and speed, basketball IQ, court awareness, shooting, rebounding and defensive ability.
And the victory over UCA was a major benchmark for the Nicholls State program that has been steadily rebuilding from nothing. The Colonels were emotionally ready. You wonder if the Sugar Bears, who played for the tournament championship last year and went 16-0 in conference, had enough of a sense of urgency in that first-round game. A league championship, not matter how decisive, entitles a team to nothing under the fresh season format of a conference tournament. Sometimes, you have to learn that lesson the hard way.
Thus, the Sugar Bears are headed to the WNIT, which begins Wednesday on campus sites. The pairings will be set late Monday night.
A case can be made that the regular-season champion of the conference might get a better setup, possibly by letting all teams into the tournament and had byes. A case also can be made that a bye game is not always good for a champion. Some might clamor that the regular-season champ should get the automatic bid, but that argument will go nowhere, just as it would in any conference. Every conference official wants to have that carrot — something for teams that are eliminated early to play for during the season, rewarding those who improve and play well at the end. And those who put on conference tournaments want them to have meaning beyond a trophy.
Bottom line. Everyone knew the setup going in. The Sugar Bears drew a No. 8 seed that barely made the tourney field on the last playing date. They were outplayed at the wrong time (which happens every year to a bunch of teams, high school and college, in a one-and-done format).
The reality is the Southland is a one-bid league. While women’s basketball has improved greatly in quality and quality coaching, it doesn’t have widespread national respect to make a case for getting anything more. Among 31 Division I conferences, the Southland is ranked 24th in RPI. The Sun Belt is 16th. Conferences ranked below 15 or 16 don’t get two bids.
However, going to the WNIT may be a better fit for the Sugar Bears for where the program is right row.
If they had won the SLC tourney, they would have gained a some prestige and a trophy, but it would also have meant a 15 seed in the NCAA Women’s Tournament and a trip to somewhere and a decisive licking at the hands of a No. 2 seed such as Duke or Tennessee.
In the WNIT, the Sugar Bears will play teams more their skill, size, development and RPI level and have a shot at hosting a game. For the long-range development of the program, it may be a better experience.
Now, let’s look at scheduling. The UCA women have greatly upgraded their schedule over the last two years and a schedule this season that featured games against Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, UT-Martin, UMKC, Alabama and Indiana certainly is comparable in challenge to most mid-major teams.
The Sugar Bears’ highest-quality wins were against UT-Martin and McNeese State.
Alabama and Indiana? They were the biggest-name victories but in reality, neither was a very good team, each finishing in the cellar of their conferences and going nowhere. Indiana was 6-24 and 1-15 in the Big Ten. Alabama was 12-19 and 2-14 in the Southeastern Conference.
Teams in the Southland Conference are playing higher-quality opponents but, to gain more respect nationally, all of them are still going to have to try to eliminate the lower-quality opponents. In other words, guaranteed wins and filler games against NAIA cupcakes that do nothing for the RPI, such as Eccelsia and Paul Quinn, need to go away for the entire league.
That’s a challenge because it’s tough for Southland teams, and particularly top-tier teams such as UCA and McNeese State, to develop a schedule with creditable home opposition. The Sugar Bears in the Farris Center are too big of a trap game for teams from major NCAA conferences.
Most Southland teams are between a rock and a hard place, particularly as far as scheduling home games.
And that brings us to the UCA Sugar Bears and the UALR Lady Trojans.
That matchup needs to be made on a yearly, home-and-home basis (in alternate years) and needs to be made as soon as possible.
It would reflect the best in a state rivalry.
UCA was the regular-season champion of a mid-major conference this year. UALR was the tournament champion of a higher-rated mid-major conference. Both teams are led by two of the best and most respected mid-major women’s coaches around in UCA’s Matt Daniel and UALR’s Joe Foley. Both programs have made their mark with significant use of Arkansas players. Both programs seem to be on a upward swing for the forseeable future. A game would help UCA’s RPI and not hurt UALR’s.
The schools are slightly more than 30 minutes apart. There’s no acceptable reason that they shouldn’t play regularly.
The game would create great excitement in state and certainly central Arkansas. It would be good for fans of either program or the state. It would be a great annual showcase for women’s basketball in Arkansas. The rivalry should produce some fantastic games.
It’s a great nonconference rivalry waiting to happen.
Both programs are in great growth spurts.
Each still needs some fertilizer.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)