LITTLE ROCK — The naming of Nolan Richarson Court at Bud Walton Arena is compelling theatre, but throw in a first-ever meeting for the Arkansas Razorbacks against the in-state Little Rock Trojans — exhibition game or not — and all of a sudden the stage gets bigger and the lights get brighter.
It will be Super Sunday in Fayetteville when the University of Arkansas honors its Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coaching icon in Richardson — he took the Razorbacks to three Final Fours and won the school’s only national championship (1993-94) during his 17-year career as Head Hog — by unveiling his name on the BWA court that was in its maiden voyage during the national championship season.
As if that doesn’t stir enough excitement, first-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman doubled down on the event by scheduling an exhibition game to benefit charity in what will be the school’s first matchup against an in-state school since March 1987 when Richardson’s Hogs defeated Arkansas State, 67-64, in overtime in the NIT. To add more intrigue, consider that Little Rock is coached by former Razorbacks All American Darrell Walker, who like Musselman spent many years coaching in the NBA including a head coaching gig.
Tip is set for 3 p.m. CT on Sunday. The game can be seen via live-stream on SEC Network Plus and the radio broadcast can be heard via the Razorbacks Sports Network.
“I think it’s going to be a great game for the entire state,” Musselman said during his press conference on Thursday. “Great event for Coach Walker’s team and certainly for our group as well. And then you add in the fact that it really is a special opportunity to honor Coach Richardson and then the new court. Really, really a special day. Much more meaningful than would just be a normal exhibition game.
“This kind of takes on a life of its own. I think it’s going to be a great game for all the people involved and it’s going to be really neat for me to get some phone calls from former players. Talked to Corey Beck yesterday. Talked to Clint McDaniel the other day. I think a lot of the former players are really looking forward to this day as well. And then you add the fact that Coach Walker, an all-time great Razorback player is coaching the opposing team it makes it even more intriguing.”
Musselman said the game is important on many levels.
“I think this is a little bit unique than just a normal exhibition game,” he said. “I think because of the statewide stuff it adds intrigue for sure. But philosophically we want to look at different combinations. That’s partly what you do even in nonconference play. We’re trying to figure out who we are and what our identity is, rotations, starters. All those types of things are things that kind of philosophically you’re thinking about as a coaching staff. We want to remain healthy. We want to have a really good game. We’re going to try to start formulating rotations and stuff like that.
“This is going to mean a lot to Coach Walkers’ team, for sure. We understand that. I talked to the team the other day about UTEP going and playing Texas Tech, and UTEP won. And Texas Tech is obviously coming off a pretty doggone good year, a Final Four team. UTEP played really well and won by double digits. This was just last week, so that’s one example, then you can go all the way back to Syracuse losing to LeMoyne, and I can go on and on. There’s a litany of examples of how in exhibition games there has been … in any game you play, you have to come and give your best effort or else the results aren’t going to be what you like.”
Musselman acknowledged that he has some familiarity with Little Rock going back to last season when his Nevada team matched up against the Trojans.
“We’re kind of unique because we played them at Nevada last year in a regular-season game,” he said. “I know their 4-man is a really good rebounder, really good reaction. They have a guard that can really shoot the basketball. They have another big that can shoot the ball. So I’m pretty familiar with about four or five of their guys. Obviously our team is not, so starting today will be when we start doing our prep. So we’ll have Thursday, Friday, Saturday and we’ll even do a little bit of shoot-around on Sunday. We’ll get some prep time in starting today, where we start going through personnel today. Then tomorrow we’ll go through more X and Os stuff.
“We know they’re a team that causes a lot of turnovers, so that’ll be something we need to do a good job of taking care of the basketball. On the flip side, last year they turned the ball over a little bit, so we’ve got to try to be able to create some offense through our defense, as well.”
Little Rock’s leading returning scorer is 5-7 sophomore guard Markquis Nowell of Harlem, N.Y., who averaged 11.1 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.4 steals last season as a freshman. Sophomore forward Nikola Maric (6-10) averaged 10.7 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 51.7% from the field, including 42.9% from 3. Junior forward Kris Bankston (6-8) of Little Rock Fair High School averaged 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks while shooting 81.3% from the field as a sophomore.
In his first season as head coach at Little Rock in ’18-19, Walker saw his Trojans finish 10-21 overall.
Musselman said he’s decided on a starting lineup for Sunday but declined to reveal any names.
“We know who it is (the starters), we’re just not saying it right now because in the past I’ve done that then someone tweaks an ankle so there’s no reason to,” Musselman said. “I have talked to a couple of guys and told them, ‘Hey, you’re going to come off the bench. Here’s why.’ But it’s not etched in stone, meaning going forward. You think back to a couple of years ago, college basketball started on Oct. 15, so things, the calendar has moved up, but the first game really hasn’t moved up that much more. We’ve still got a whole bunch of time left before we open up against Rice. We might be a team that has a little bit of a flexible starting unit. That might be who we are. I’m not sure. I’ve studied, like the Clippers last year, they were a team that started different starting lineups, and Toronto did it a little bit last year. We might be a team that goes that route. That’s not the route we went at Nevada last year. We basically started the same five for 30 games, but we might be a team that starts a game off based off matchups.
Musselman also gave a couple of personnel updates.
On whether or not sophomore Connor Vanover will get playing time given he still has not been granted a waiver for immediate playing eligibility: “Probably none. You know, really you don’t play guys that are sit-out guys anywhere across the board in an exhibition game. So those guys that aren’t say cleared by the NCAA, they will not play.”
On senior forward Adrio Bailey who is dealing with an injury: “Adrio’s dealing with kind of back spasms. Really hasn’t done much the last two practices. We took off Monday and obviously yesterday because of SEC media day. Hopeful that his spasms are doing better. But he’s kind of been limited with dunking and things like that. We’ve tried to keep him off a lot of the full court stuff. But other than that, we’re fully healthy.”
Assuming Vanover doesn’t play and if Bailey is not healthy enough to get on the floor, Arkansas will have only eight scholarship players available to play in the game: sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Joe, junior wing Mason Jones, sophomore combo guard Desi Sills, junior point guard Jalen Harris, sophomore forward Reggie Chaney, sophomore forward Ethan Henderson, senior grad-transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and senior grad-transfer Jeantal Cylla.
Joe and Jones were two of Arkansas’s three double-digit scorers a season ago as both players averaged more than 13 points per game. Sills and Harris played heavy minutes with starting roles, and the addition of Whitt — he started his career at Arkansas before transfering to SMU only to return to Fayetteville for his senior season — gives the Hogs a deep, veteran 5-man backcourt. Chaney and Cylla appear to be the two frontliners who will be counted on for heavy minutes and production.
Walker, an All American at Arkansas while playing for legendary coach Eddie Sutton in the early 1980s before going on to play 10 years in the NBA that preceded a 20-year coaching career in the league, is excited about the ceremony and the opportunity.
“I think it’s great,” Walker said during a Sept. 25 interview. “I think it’s great for the state. I’m happy for Nolan and what he accomplished up there. Happy for our guys that they can come see Bud Walton Arena and play in there. And I’m glad to go back to where I started my career. It will be fun to go back.
“This is an opportunity to raise money for people who need it. We feel honored to get to play in this game.”
Musselman’s and Walker’s paths intersected often spanning decades while they were involved in the NBA game, a relationship that led Walker to come to Fayetteville for an Arkansas practice back in the spring.
“It was good,” Walker said of that spring meeting. “When I went up there and met with Eric Musselman, we had some good basketball talk. As coaches our paths crossed a lot (in the NBA), only 30 teams and there’s only so many coaches, so we get to know each other pretty fast.”
Arkansas’s baseball team — which went on to play in the 2019 College World Series — lost a regular-season home game to the Little Rock Trojans, 17-7, in early April at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville in what was the first meeting between the two schools in baseball. Arkansas’s athletic department has recently moved in a direction to lift the long-standing policy of not playing in-state colleges, but Walker cautioned that Sunday’s exhibition game between his current school as a coach against his former school as a player is not about to spark a rivalry.
“It’s a great opportunity to play somebody else, it’s a great chance for Eric’s team to play somebody. Not just beat yourself up in practice before the season starts. We’re trying to build something, and Eric is trying to build something. This is not (the start of) a rivalry, we’re doing this to raise money and to hopefully learn and get better.”
Arkansas has won 30 consecutive exhibition games played at BWA, last losing in November 2003 against the EA Sports Midwest All-Stars, 76-71, in former coach Stan Heath’s second season in Fayetteville.
Five days after playing Little Rock, Arkansas will host its second and final exhibition game against NCAA Division II Southwest Oklahoma State. The Razorbacks open their 2019-20 regular season at home in BWA against old Southwest Conference foe Rice on Tuesday, Nov. 5, which is the opening day for regular-season play in college basketball.
Walker’s Trojans will also open their ’19-20 regular-season on Nov. 5 — on the road against Missouri State.
Last March, the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution to name the court at BWA for Richardson. He was 389-169 in 17 seasons as Arkansas head coach and set a school record for wins and a .697 winning percentage. He led the Razorbacks to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances including six Sweet 16’s (1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996), four Elite Eights (1990, 1991, 1994, 1995), three Final Fours (1990, 1994, 1995), a national runner-up finish (1995), and the 1994 NCAA Championship in the inaugural season of BWA.
In Richardson’s 22 combined years as a head coach at the collegiate level — at Western Texas Junior College, the University of Tulsa and the University of Arkansas — he compiled a record of 508-206 (.711) and became the only head coach in college basketball history to win a National Junior College Championship, NIT Championship, and NCAA Championship.
Below are more details regarding the exhibition game that were included in a UA media release …
* Doors to Bud Walton will open at 1:30 p.m. CT on Sunday, Oct. 20.
* The game itself is not part of the 2019-20 season ticket package. All tickets are $10, and seating will be on a first-come, first-serve general admission basis excluding the suites, courtside seats, and seats reserved by the athletics department. Those that have a suite or courtside seats may purchase those by contacting the Razorback Ticket Center.
* Parking for the exhibition game is free and fans are encouraged to park in the following lots: 56 (Razorback Road); 46, 56B and 60 (Leroy Pond Road); 47N, 74A and 74B (Center Street); 55, 59 and Meadow Street Parking Garage (Meadow Street). ADA parking is available in Lot 56 with shuttle service to and from Bud Walton Arena.