BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
When Arkansas’ women’s basketball program scheduled the University of Louisiana-Monroe to open its 2023-2024 season, the Warhawks were coming off a 7-23 campaign and it’s 12th straight losing season.
But that is definitely not the squad Arkansas will see when they host the ULM Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at Bud Walton Arena.
Missy Bilderback, who was 198-23 the last 8 years at Ellisville (Miss.) Jones College, is the new head coach at Louisiana-Monroe and has eight new faces on a revitalized roster.
That includes the former Auburn starting guard duo of Jakayla Johnson and Sania Wells, former Clemson star Daisha “Nunu” Bradford and former Kansas 6-5 center player Emma Merriweather.
“All the transfers played,” Bilderback said in an earlier interview. “That’s the thing. They played at their previous schools. There are a lot of different players who can contribute in different ways. We can go small or go big. There’s a lot of possibilities for this team.”
Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors even tossed out a nod to Razorback men’s head coach Eric Musselman’s team when talking about ULM’s new roster.
“I can promise you this, it’s not the team that we scheduled to open our season with,” Neighbors said. “When we scheduled it a year and a half ago, I think they didn’t win that many games last year. This team may be picked low, but they won’t finish low… They look like Coach Muss’ team. There are a bunch of people who have played at a real high level on a bunch of teams and scored and played.”
“[ULM] is going to be a team when they roll out there, it’s going to have an SEC look. They are going to be new. It will be their first game with (Bilderback), but I can assure you there will be SEC-caliber athletes out there.”
Bilderback won 6 of the last seven league championships while at Jones and seven consecutive Region 23 titles and will bring a winning mentality to ULM.
“Anybody that is looking at them last year is doing it wrong because it is a different team, it’s a different coach, it’s everything,” Neighbors said. “And, we go back to (former Razorback) Alexis Tolefree, (she) played for (Bilderback), and that’s the school (Arkansas assistant coach) Pauline (Love) came from, so there are lot of connections to coach.
“She obviously was hired for a reason, because she is a builder and she went in [to the portal] and she got two starters from the SEC and one from the ACC on that roster.
“This roster, when we were putting the scout together, it’s kind of funny because they are all in different uniforms. It’s like ‘why do we have a clip of a girl from Clemson?’ We played against her (Bradford), we’ve played against Jakayla Johnson and Sania Wells. We’ve played all these kids, so it has got our kids full attention.”
It’s clear that Neighbors has tons of respect for Bilderback, who also coached current Arkansas sophomore Carly Keats last season at Jones.
“From (recruiting Keats and Tolefree), we developed a mutual respect,” Neighbors said. “And obviously the style of play fits. They play a lot like we do, and she and I share very similar ways about doing practices and a lot of our systems are the same — a lot of our philosophies about not turning it over and taking good open shots.
“We’ve talked numerous times, not about recruiting, just about basketball stuff. When she got the (Louisiana-Monroe) job and we knew that they were on the schedule, it was exciting. I like to play against people I have respect for, and we’ve got a lot of respect for her. … Taking that job going down there, you know she will get that thing going in a hurry.”
Merriweather led ULM in scoring (10.1) and rebounding (10.6) last season, but is still awaiting an answer on her petition for another year of eligibility.
She also had a school-record 91 blocked shots and shot 54.3 percent from the field while earning Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player-of-the-Year as well as All-Sun Belt Third-Team honors.
“We’re hopeful with Emma,” Bilderback said. “She’s shown up every day and worked really hard.”
Johnson, Bradford, junior guard Olivia “Little Bit” Knight, South Alabama transfer Dee Hamer and UCA transfer Kyjai Miles all previously played for Bilderback at Jones as did Keats last season.
“We found a few players we were familiar with that had played for us before,” Bilderback said. “We’ve got a staff that’s pretty familiar with each other and we brought in student-athletes who have played for us before. I think that’s helped with the transition.”
The 5-8 Keats averaged 9.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists and knocked down 55 3-pointers while starting 28 of 30 games last season for Jones.
“With Coach Bilderback…I am pretty excited to see her again,” Keats said. “We talk here and there and just talk about how to get better and stuff like that.”
Bradford started 53 games at Clemson over the past two seasons and 5-8 senior guard averaged 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, led the team in 3-point field goals (52) and ranked first in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s with 83 steals.
“You win with your guards first,” Bilberback said. “If you get good guard play, you’ve always got a shot. We were trying to find high-level guards who could create on their own and be able to play a transition-style, up-tempo game.”
“Nunu” should have a big impact on both ends of the floor per Bilderback.
“Obviously, she’s got an ability to go find a bucket,” Bilderback said. “She also led the ACC in steals last year, so she has the ability to go create some offense from her defense and quickness. She has a lot of natural instincts.”
Wells played in 106 games with 34 starts at Auburn from 2019-23, and posted double figures in scoring 25 times.
“That maturity and experience is going to be huge for us,” Bilderback said. “The game is really slow for her. You can tell how experienced she is because things just happen naturally.”
Johnson appeared in 30 games as an Auburn redshirt sophomore at last season with including 17 starts.
“She’s a long, athletic guard who finds ways to impact through her rebounding and her defense,” Bilderback said. “She’s really a three-level scorer. She can get to the rim, she’s got a pretty mid-level jumper and has improved her three-ball over the years.”
Bilderback believes her team will play with a collective chip on its shoulder.
“So many of our players are here to prove something,” Bilderback said. “Maybe some of them have not had the best experience at another school. There may be some who were overlooked. Maybe they have one year left to win a championship or just want the opportunity to compete.
“If you ask our team in our huddle, that’s what we’re working for every day – an opportunity to compete and win a championship.”
Photo by John D. James