To accurately track what happened to University of Central Arkansas men’s basketball season, you have to look well beyond the bottom line.
The bottom line is ugly — 2-27, 2-16 in the Southland Conference.
First-year University of Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell realized this transition season, which carried an academic probation, was going to be painful. He brought in a completely new team, mostly freshmen, and the player he kept (Ethan Lee) played sparingly.
The learning curve was steep: how the players adapted to Pennell’s style, how they played together, what they needed to do to be a contender in the Southland Conference. Even more so, what college basketball is really like as far as intensity, speed and focus, night in and night out.
The Bears, naturally, had their lapses — games and segments that made Pennell shake his head and toss his jacket.
This "Bad News Bears" season challenged patience.
But Pennell is trying to paint the big picture for the long term.
He has players on the bench who should make a dramatic impact next season.
This season, he saw growth, especially in the stretch run of the season.
"I thought the last 3-4 games, including the one we won at home against Southeastern Louisiana, I thought we started looking like a basketball team," he said. "And now we can add the pieces, the guys sitting out, the guys we have getting a year older. I think we have the nucleus for a pretty good team."
The Bears played hard. They seem to have had a great desire to please the new coaching staff.
UCA’s Jordan Howard was Freshman of the Year in the conference. It’s extremely rare that a 2-27 gains an individual honor.
They appear to be high-character individuals. Their work ethic was strong.
That was very indicative in the last game of the season — on the road, against McNeese State, well off the radar, little tangible to play for.
And the Bears led most of the game and were shooting for the win at the buzzer.
That tells you a lot.
Now, the real grind begins.
"And the work starts tomorrow," Pennell said after the McNeese game. "Basketball teams are really made from March to October, not from October to March."
Another key indicator:
The Bears were starting over on probation with reduced practice time because of dreadful academic performance by those who went before them.
When UCA recognized scholar-athletes at halftime of a game this season, 10 of the 13 UCA players were honored for 3.0 grade-point averages or better.
For this year (and possibly any year), that’s the biggest victory.
That’s a major cornerstone for the future.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)