Evidence that the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears will play their most challenging basketball schedule in history in 2017-18: There are matchups with opponents who have a combined 11 national championships and 22 Final Four appearances.
As they break in eight new players, the Sugar Bears will begin preparation to repeat as Southland Conference champions and go for their third straight Southland tournament title but first face a challenging non-conference slate that features some of the nation’s elite programs — Baylor, Tennessee and Texas A&M — looming in the season’s first month.
"Our schedule is much more challenging this year – and that’s good for our program," said 2017 Southland Conference coach of the year Sandra Rushing, entering her sixth season at Central Arkansas. "It’s a great experience for our players, to go against competition of that caliber and see what it looks like at the highest level – the type of teams we’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament.
"It shows you where you need to be as a player, and helps us see where we need to be as a program. When you’re talking about programs like that, obviously it’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity and good experience for our players, and we’re excited for our non-conference schedule as we prepare for conference and start trying to figure it all out, especially with so many new players."
The season tips off on Nov. 10 in the Farris Center against crosstown foe Hendrix, with the trip to Waco to take on Baylor four days later. After home games against Alcorn State and Crowley’s Ridge, the Sugar Bears head to Knoxville for their second-ever meeting with the Lady Vols on Nov. 30. They return home for a pair of games against Williams Baptist and Central Baptist, then head to College Station to face A&M for the second straight season on Dec. 9.
The non-conference slate ends with a trip to South Alabama on Dec. 16 and a tournament at Florida International on Dec. 20 and 21 that includes host FIU, Clemson and North Dakota State.
"Conference is the most important thing, and non-conference is there to prepare us for that – and I really like the way the schedule sets up and think it will be great for us before we start our Southland schedule," Rushing said. "With so many new pieces this year, we’ve got a lot to figure out as far as everyone’s role on the team. And we probably won’t know those until sometime in December. You think you know their roles, but until you throw them in the fire and see what they’re capable of doing with each other, you never truly know. We know why we brought each of them in and what their strengths are as individuals, but we have a lot of work to do with combinations, rotations and chemistry."
Not only does the slate give excellent opportunity to the players, but also the coaching staff.
"Playing Baylor, Tennessee, A&M – it’s exciting for our players, but also for me as a coach," Rushing said. "It’s challenging, looking down at the other end of the floor and there’s a legendary coach who has won national titles. I’ve been very fortunate during my career and got to go up against some really good coaches from Pat Head Summitt on down. To look down and see Kim Mulkey, Gary Blair, Holly Warlick and coaches like that, it’s something you look forward to. Just like players want to play the best teams, coaches want to coach against the best, and I’ll certainly get a chance to do that this season."
A week after the final non-conference test, Southland play begins on Dec. 28 at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
"We’re a long way off from conference play, but we’re already looking ahead to it," Rushing said. "You can’t start early enough if you want to win championships. You look at it and last year us and Abilene Christian shared the championship, and we obviously graduated a talented senior class and they lost pretty much all of theirs as well.
"We don’t plan on falling off and I’m sure they don’t either, but we know the other teams smell blood in the water and they’re going to be coming for us. There are some talented teams in our league, and it’s going to tough to win another championship – but that’s our goal. I’m really excited to see what this group can do – we’ve got tremendous senior leadership and I really like our team from top to bottom. But this team isn’t last year’s team – this team will have to find what’s going to separate it from our two championship teams. This group will have to establish their own identity, and we’re excited to get started finding out what that’s going to be."