FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas women’s basketball coach Tom Collen is proud of the way his young team handled nonconference play, passing every test en route to the program’s best start since the 2007-08 season.
But Collen also was realistic about the competition his team faced on most nights.
"I think it’s been very average," Collen said. "It’s not a great strength of schedule. I think the strength of schedule is going to dramatically increase as the season goes on. But I think we’ve done everything we could do with this team in order to prepare it for conference play."
Collen and the Razorbacks — who closed nonconference play with a 100-54 win against Mississippi Valley State last week— will begin to find out what they’re capable of beginning tonight, when they open Southeastern Conference play against 13th-ranked South Carolina in Bud Walton Arena.
It’s the start of a 16-game conference schedule that will show whether Arkansas is NCAA Tournament worthy. Forward Keira Peak said the Razorbacks are ready to get started.
"I feel like the team’s very excited about going into SEC play, to be challenged on a different level," Peak said. "You can’t go into the SEC thinking you’re going to win a game, because every game is going to be a challenge, so we’re pretty excited about that. Every game is going to be a challenge."
Arkansas carries an undefeated record into conference play for the third time in seven years (2010-11, 2007-08). But a great start hasn’t led to SEC success.
The Razorbacks didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament in either year. Arkansas went 6-10 in conference play in 2010-11 and played in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The 2007-08 team went 2-12 in SEC play and finished 17-13.
But Collen believes his 2013-14 team is capable of SEC success even though it is leaning on a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores. And even though the Razorbacks were selected to finish 12th in the SEC’s preseason poll, which Collen said has been a source of motivation for his team throughout the season.
"I think this is one of the more talented teams we’ve had," Collen said. "We’re certainly a young team, and we certainly need to get some more experience. … But we certainly want to show up right away on Thursday night. We want to be able to prove that our record is not a fluke, that we’re a pretty good baseball team."
The first test won’t be easy. South Carolina (12-1) is the first ranked opponent on the schedule. The Gamecocks beat Arkansas 43-40 in Fayetteville last season, went 11-5 in the conference play and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Both teams are expecting another rugged game tonight. Arkansas leads the NCAA in scoring defense (44.6 points a game), while South Carolina is third (48.3).
"Traditionally, these games with South Carolina are in the mid-40s," Collen said. "So it’s pretty hard to score against good defensive teams. Certainly, I think (South Carolina coach Dawn Staley) probably feels like she has a team that scores a little bit better this year, and we feel the same way. I would anticipate, not a game in the 40s, but I think you’re going to see a real defensive struggle. Two teams that scout each other very well. Two teams that defend awfully well.
"It’s not going to be a high-scoring game, I don’t think."
But Collen is hoping his team – which is led by freshman forward Jessica Jackson (14.8 points a game) – will find a way to score just enough to grab a win.
If so, it would snap Arkansas’ seven-game losing streak in conference openers. And help the Razorbacks show their nonconference schedule prepare them for SEC play.
"All we can do is just prove them wrong," Peak said. "Our first challenge is Thursday, and maybe they can watch that game and see how good we really are."