Monday’s Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting went so smoothly and non-confrontational for Jeff Long and all the Razorback supporters in attendance — everyone including the War Memorial Stadium commissioners were all smiles, and Long even had news about $1.6 million from two anonymous Little Rock donors toward a basketball practice facility — that I couldn’t let the Arkansas athletic director exit without his addressing last week’s one nationally negative note about the UA program, specifically the men’s basketball nonconference schedule.
Maybe you missed it; it appears Long did.
Last week, ESPN college basketball writer Jason King took an in-depth look at the Razorback men’s basketball schedule for the upcoming season and put it in his list of Top Ten Worst Schedules in the country. This doesn’t mean “worst” as in a taxing, difficult schedule like the UA football team will face over the next five weeks, but “worst” as in loaded with cream puffs (our own Doc Harper also ventured in on the subject Monday morning).
Turns out, Long said he didn’t know who the writer was, and I took it to mean he hadn’t read the piece. “Lots of people have opinions. He’s based it on what those teams are from last year and this is a different year,” Long said.
OK, but can we intelligently deduce that the likes of High Point, Southeastern Louisiana, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Savannah State and Tennessee-Martin aren’t likely to field juggernauts in any year. Texas-San Antonio and Sun Belt Conference teams Louisiana and South Alabama also are on the schedule. Each of these games is in state. So, too, are the “headliner” games with SMU and Clemson. Arkansas plays in the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving week where it is expected to see its toughest non-conference opposition.
Is it among the 10 worst schedules? We’ll leave that assessment to King, the ESPN writer, who said in summation about Arkansas’ out-of-conference slate:
“This is one of the more embarrassing schedules on this list. If I’m ranking the top 10, Arkansas would probably be No. 2 or No. 3. Other than the Maui Invitational (the Razorbacks open against Cal and then play either Minnesota or Syracuse), there is not a single noteworthy game on this list. Arkansas is known for its tremendous fan support. Yet the best home game Mike Anderson can schedule for the Razorback faithful is a tilt with SMU? Inexcusable.”
Long quickly made it obvious to me that he wasn’t going there. “We have a basketball schedule,” he said almost ironically.
Talk about irony: Clemson is also on King’s list of the 10 worst schedules. Arkansas and Clemson recently signed a two-year deal starting this December. What if neither had scheduled the other? How much worse could their schedules have been?
I suggested to Long that with Cal and either Syracuse or Minnesota in Maui, then the home games with SMU and Clemson, Arkansas’ nonconference slate boasted only four teams who are likely to have strong RPI’s going into the season. (There’s a chance, if Arkansas wins its first two games in Maui, of another high-profile foe.)
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” Long countered. “We have a basketball schedule and certainly I am pleased with our basketball schedule. We make the schedules for many, many different reasons, and certainly playing in Maui is an important piece of this year’s schedule.”
But, I asked, did he have any concern that the same criticism of the Hogs’ schedule last year would arise again and perhaps hurt Arkansas’ post-season chances? Remember, despite a 10-8 mark in the SEC, the team’s strength of schedule and a high RPI largely due to that poor SOS doomed Arkansas’s chances not only of earning an NCAA Tournament bid (only three SEC teams were chosen), but being part of the NIT post-season field.
“That could happen every year,” Long said of how the strength of schedule works out by March. “We don’t know how strong those teams are going to be this year. They’re basing those opinions off of last year.”
I would contend that, yes, a scheduler might not be able to forecast the variance among the top 50-75 RPIs in the country. For example, when moribund Southern Miss was originally scheduled for this fall’s football schedule, the Golden Eagles were a respected Deep South mid-major on a streak of 18 straight winning seasons. USM was a program worthy at one point of the nearly $1 million Arkansas paid to bring the Golden Eagles to Fayetteville. But there is enough trend data in year-to-year scheduling for basketball to figure where the Sun Belt foes and the mid- to low-mid-majors will fall.
Long finds it easier to not answer the question as to why, in Mike Anderson’s third year, the schedule may be worse overall than last year’s, which featured five big-time opponents (NCAA teams Michigan, Syracuse and Oklahoma) offset by seven teams so far out in the RPI rankings, one needed the Hubble Telescope to see them.
Arkansas also doesn’t play a true road game before SEC play begins. Maui is a fun trip, but hardly a road trip in hostile surroundings. With the program having set a new three-year low for conference road success (wins over Auburn were the only road victories in Anderson’s first two seasons and John Pelphrey’s last), perhaps a nonconference road game or two might have provided some needed seasoning for this team.
Instead, in taking the line from football coach Bret Bielema that Little Rock games seem like road games, the Hogs will get South Alabama on the road in Verizon Arena in North Little Rock before the partisan Razorback fans.
Arkansas will open the 18-game SEC slate at Texas A&M, where they were embarrassed in the season opener last year; but this year’s Aggies may take a step back after losing offensive stars Elston Turner and Ray Turner from last year’s team.
Talented Florida and fully reloaded Kentucky present a doozy of a back-to-back home stretch after the A&M trip. Then it’s back to the road to visit Georgia and Tennessee.
Once again, the schedule will no doubt pad the win total as the calendar year ends, but it is unlikely to prepare Arkansas for those first five SEC games, much less road life in the league.