WACO, Texas — In a season that will feature several high-profile opponents, the University of Central Arkansas Bears will get one out of the way on opening day when they take on the No. 24 Baylor Bears on Friday here.
The UCA Bears and Baylor Bears will tip-off at noon at the Ferrell Center on Fox Sports Southwest on Day 1 of the 2017-18 season.
"When you play someone like Baylor, it holds your attention all through the fall,’"said fourth-year head coach Russ Pennell, who has scheduled Power 5 opponents throughout his tenure at UCA. "It definitely makes the practices good. I think to open against at Top 25 team, I think everyone is excited about that. You get to play on regional television, so that’s a lot of fun."
The Bears will also play at No. 18/20 UCLA next Wednesday, with later trips to Oregon, California and San Francisco on the slate. Pennell said he hopes some extra bodies and some hard-earned experience will aid the Bears in some of those matchups.
"I think the biggest thing this year is depth,’"Pennell said. "We just have more players that we can run at you. I also think we’re a more mature team, a little bit more athletic. And I just sense that the three years of building is taking us to a really good place, where I think we can be competitive game in and game out."
Since Pennell’s arrival prior to the 2014-15 season, the Bears have played as tough a non-conference schedule as any team in the Southland Conference. UCA faced three NCAA Sweet 16 teams (Butler, Michigan, Wisconsin) last season, along with Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Creighton, Oklahoma and UMass in previous seasons.
"I’ve always thought you have to test yourself to find out what you have," said Pennell. "And hopefully that builds toward conference play. In our league, the uniqueness of it, you have to call it like it is … we’re only going to get one team in the NCAA Tournament. So what you want to do is be battle-tested enough that you have a chance to not only make it to Katy (Texas), but win the (SLC) tournament.
"And I think you get a lot better playing against teams like Baylor and UCLA than you do by playing a game that is almost a guaranteed win. So that’s always been our philosophy, and it also helps us in recruiting. Players want to play against the best. So it’s a win-win situation."
UCA returns three starters from last season, and several other players who saw a lot of court time over the past few seasons. A senior class led by All-SLC guard Jordan Howard has Pennell excited.
"You start with the leadership of Mathieu Kamba, Ethan Lee and Jordan Howard, our three seniors,’ he said. "Those three guys have been really good this fall setting the tone for this team. We know how good Jordan can be, and Mathieu is 30 or 40 points away from being a 1,000-point scorer. He kind of sneaks up on you a little bit when you talk about stats.
"And then I’ve been super impressed with Ethan Lee. He has just brought the intensity everyday, playing like a fifth-year senior should.
"Then you add some guys behind them, with Thatch (Unruh) and Tanner (Schmit) and Otas (Iyekekpolor) and Aaron (Wiedenarr), those guys have played a lot of basketball."
The Bears added four newcomers to the roster, with three slated to see a lot of action as true freshmen.
"I think they have pushed our veterans to be good everyday," Pennell sai And they’ve added that depth that I think we’ve needed for a couple of years.’
UCA will host its home opener at the Farris Center at 4 p.m. Sunday against University of the Ozarks before heading to Los Angeles to take on the Bruins in storied Pauley Pavalion on Wednesday.