The University of Central Arkansas men's basketball program has played a Who's Who of college basketball teams over the past 13 years at the NCAA Division I level.
Trips to Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, UCLA, Michigan, Oregon, Butler, Louisville and Oklahoma State, just to name a few.
The Bears are about to tackle arguably the biggest Who in the bunch Nov. 12 when they take on the Duke Blue Devils at storied Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.
The Blue Devils have won five NCAA national championships under two-time Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski and are the fourth winningest programs in men's college basketball history.
"One of the things we try to do, knowing we have to play these guarantee games is, we try to play in places our guys are going to remember,” UCA coach Russ Pennell said. "I think we've done that over the course of the five years I've been here. And now this is probably the top of the mountain.
"Many would think that's a foolish thing to do, but I think the experience of playing in Cameron Indoor against one of the storied programs in college basketball is something our players will be able to hold onto the rest of their lives, regardless of the outcome.”
Pennell said some coaches avoid big-time opponents, but he leans the other way.
"Our schedule this year is difficult,” Pennell said. "It's very difficult, no doubt about it. And I've had coaches, in our own league, say, 'why do you play that tough of a schedule?' We do it to challenge our guys and to give them an unbelievable experience of playing at some of the most famous venues in the country against some of the most storied programs in college basketball. I think the big thing for us is just embracing the challenges.”
Pennell said he thinks his 2019-20 Bears are ready for to handle the tough schedule, which also includes the likes of Baylor, Georgetown, Utah, Wichita State, Marquette and Pepperdine.
"I think with the current team that we have, I'm hoping we go in and really battle, that we don't let the moment be too big,” he said. "I think that's what we're looking for with this team. We feel like we've been gearing up the past few years to have this type of team. We feel like we're going to have a pretty good team, but when you go measure yourself against a Duke, what you want to do it play good, long stretches of good basketball and let the chips fall where they may after that.
"Our goal is always to try to do what we do well against whoever we're playing. With this type team, I think they can mentally handle this, where if we were a little bit younger, it might be a little more difficult.”
UCA opens the season on Nov. 5 at Baylor in Waco, Texas, for the second time in three years before hosting cross-town rival Hendrix on Nov. 7 at the Farris Center. Georgetown follows on Nov. 9 and the Blue Devils on Nov. 12.
Three of those four will be ranked in the Top 25.
UCA's non-conference opponents have a combined eight national championships, 186 NCAA Tournament appearances and 32 Final Four appearances.
"In the 80s and 90s, Georgetown was as good as anybody in the country,” Pennell said. “I think with (Olympic Dream Teamer) Patrick Ewing coming back to coach them, they are trying to recapture some of that glory. They are much improved since he's been there and they continue to recruit extremely well, which you can kind of expect with him leading their program.
"It's another chance for us to go face another program that has unbelievable tradition. You're playing on a big stage in Washington D.C. A chance to go to the nation's capital and see some of the sights. It will be a really nice trip for these guys.
"We're excited about our whole schedule but those are two, Duke and Georgetown, are particularly marquee names on there.”
The most intriguing game on the schedule might be at Marquette on Dec. 28.
The Golden Eagles feature one of the top players in the nation in guard Markus Howard, who also has strong ties to the UCA program.
His older brother Jordan Howard finished his UCA career two seasons ago as the most decorated player in school history, setting records for career scoring and career 3-pointers at UCA and in the state of Arkansas.
Markus Howard took a recruiting visit to UCA during Jordan Howard's sophomore season before opting for Marquette.
"The Marquette game will be an interesting one from the standpoint of our close relationship with Markus,” Pennell said. "Being Jordan's younger brother and him considering UCA and the relationship we have with the Howard family. That's going to be a lot of fun.
"I know they (Marquette) lost a couple of transfers that everyone is going to point to, but they still have plenty. The expectations of Marquette are really high right now. And when you have an All-American guard and the Big East Player of the Year, that's a pretty good place to start. That will be a great challenge for our guards to go against somebody of Markus' stature, someone who will probably be leading the nation in scoring. So if you want to measure yourself, that's a pretty good place to start.”
UCA also has a home matchup with the Little Rock Trojans (Nov. 17) as part of the "Governor's I-40 Showdown," as well as road games at Wichita State (Dec. 5), Utah (Dec. 7) and Pepperdine (Dec. 14).
The challenge starts with the Baylor Bears on Nov. 5.
"I think Baylor is kind of in a situation where they've built their personnel back up,” Pennell said. "When we played them a couple of years ago, they were very good. Some of those guys graduated and then they kind of had some young guys, but at the end of the year last year they came on. And I think the expectations for them this year is to be back to that Top 25 team for the majority of the year.
"And that's always a challenge playing someone like that early in the year, you're not sure what to expect. Our guys that made that trip (in 2017), there will be a little more familiarity and that should help. We get a quality opponent right off the bat so we know what we have to do.”
Utah is coming off a 17-14 season under coach Larry Krystkowiak.
Wichita State won 22 games and reached the semifinals of the NIT last season, just two years after winning 31 games.
"Salt Lake, that's a good environment. I think they are another team that is trying to climb back up in the Pac 12,” said Pennell, who coached in that league at both Arizona and Arizona State. "They were good two years ago and then dropped off a little bit last year. But I think they are going to be pretty good.
"And Wichita State has been really good the last few years. They are always tough at home.”
The Bears' Southland Conference schedule will have a new look this season as well with two extra games.
The conference has moved to a 20-game league schedule, beginning on Dec. 18 at home against Incarnate Word and Dec. 20 versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
"I think it makes it more of a grind, obviously,” Pennell said. "But I think it's probably good. I think most conferences are going to that. It probably gives you a better sample size of who the true champion is. It also gives you an extra home game, and that's good.
"And in our conference, it's always so competitive anyway, so I think for schools and fans, it will probably be a good thing.”
In an odd scheduling quirk, the Bears will play seven of their first 10 SLC games at home at the Farris Center but then close the regular season with seven of their final 10 on the road.
The Bears will be trying to earn their fourth consecutive appearance in the SLC Tournament at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, against what could be a highly competitive field.
"I think it's wide open, I really do,” Pennell said. "I don't think there is that clear-cut team that you say should definitely win it.
"I know I like our team. I think we have all the ingredients. The big thing for us this off season is just getting more physical. I think for us, we have some guys who have the potential to be special, but something has to click and they have to go do it, and do it consistently. To me it's, which ones of you are going to distinguish yourselves.”