Tonight, the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock will serve as the crossroads between two Arkansas men's basketball teams that have had completely different starts to their seasons.
The University of Central Arkansas (4-3) has already won half as many games as it did last season, and the Bears are 3-1 since they lost 106-101 in overtime at then-No. 18 UCLA on Nov. 15.
UCA men at UALR
WHEN 6:30 p.m. Central
WHERE Jack Stephens Center, Little Rock
RECORDS Central Arkansas 4-3; UALR 1-5
RADIO KKPT-FM, 94.1, in Little Rock; KUCA-FM, 91.3, in Conway
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
COACH Russ Pennell (21-75 in four seasons at UCA, 114-133 in nine seasons)
COACH Wes Flanigan (16-22 in second season at UALR and overall)
UCA ranks 40th in the NCAA in scoring offense (85.0 points per game), and senior guard Jordan Howard's 24.7 points per game is the fourth-highest figure in the nation.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock (1-5) has its lowest winning percentage (.167) since its 4-24 (.143) season in 1999-2000. The Trojans started the season 0-5 for the first time since the program began Division I play in 1978. UALR began the 1967-1968 season 0-12 under Coach Happy Mahfouz and finished 2-23.
UALR's 63 points per game ranks last in the Sun Belt Conference and 337th of 351 NCAA Division I teams, and last season's leading scorer, junior guard Deondre Burns, has yet to play in a game due to an MCL sprain.
The Trojans' opponents make 40.5 percent of their three-pointers -- a figure that ranks 325th in the nation -- and that problem was showcased in UALR's 81-79 season-opening loss to Division II Ouachita Baptist, which made 14 three-pointers to UALR's 6.
"We've got to be better defensively," UALR Coach Wes Flanigan said. "Follow the game plan with our defensive principles. You'll see we'll guard the three-point line better. We've got to guard better. It puts a lot of pressure on your offense when you can't consistently get stops."
UALR stopped its losing streak with a 70-55 victory over Norfolk State on Sunday, and the Trojans will now face a UCA program it has beaten in their past 10 meetings.
UCA won 17 games in the previous three seasons under Coach Russ Pennell, two of which while the program was serving a two-year postseason ban for not meeting the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate requirements. Pennell said before this season that he hoped this year "we move to the upper echelon of the league," and Flanigan has already noticed a change.
"This is their best team in a while," Flanigan said. "Pretty good offensively, getting space, spreading you out. Again, you look at their stats, and this is the best offensive team he has."
Pennell said UCA has an offense that relies on ball movement, and the Bears' 18 assists per game ranks 13th in the nation.
He also said he expects UALR will try and jostle his team's rhythm with tight defense.
"They run multiple presses," Pennell said. "They pressure on the defensive end. When they can turn it over, they can turn it into points. "
UALR beat Norfolk State in part by scoring 28 points off turnovers, which was the first time the Trojans scored more off turnovers than an opponent since the Ouachita game. The 126 points UALR has given up on turnovers this season has accounted for 30 percent of its opponents' point totals.
UCA last beat UALR 93-86 in 1973, and Pennell said his team cannot get caught up in the Trojans' rough start if they want the streak to end.
"First of all, I don't look at the Ouachita game," Pennell said. "That's irrelevant. I think we'll really misjudge UALR. I think Wes Flanigan gets them to play hard. I have the utmost respect for [UALR] and the way they play basketball. We have to take it as a very good opponent, or it can be a long night for us."
Sports on 11/29/2017