Arkansas women’s head basketball coach Mike Neighbors is happy his unbeaten team jumped into the Top 25 this week, but says it’s now more of a expectation than a surprise.
The Razorbacks (10-0) made their first appearance this season in the Associated Press rankings by landing at No. 21 on Monday ahead of home games with Lamar Thursday at 7 p.m. and Arkansas State on Sunday afternoon at 3.
“It is and I think in this league especially,” Neighbors said of expectations and playing in the SEC. “I honestly don’t know if it is attainable every single year. (Former Arkansas head coach Coach (Gary) Blair was a great coach here and could’t stay in there every year. It is hard.
“…If we are rebuilding and in there three of five or four out of five – and again we only rank 25 out of 361 (teams) instead of 25 out of 114 or 115 as they do in some sports or less – that’s a really high percentage when you put 25 of 361 beside it, that’s a pretty elite group to be in.
So it is certainly something that we look at every year and is a benchmark and a measuring stick.”
Arkansas went 3-0 and won the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands by downing then No. 25 Kansas State during the week of Thanksgiving.
The Razorbacks have also gone 5-0 at home and have have two road wins over the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
“I’ve said it a couple of times, and I’ll just reiterate it, I didn’t necessarily think we would be 10-0, but I am happy that we are,” Neighbors said. “We have played really well, we have played under a lot of diverse situations and a lot of diverse circumstances and found a way for the results to be wins.
“But I am really more pleased with how we have continue to make progress in a lot of different areas like players roles and development. Ten is a nice round number for everybody to reflect on and we all like round numbers in sports.”
Arkansas may have to defend its ranking against Lamar and Arkansas State without star guard MaKayla Daniels, who is averaging 13.3 points per game and had to sit out the last game due to a left foot injury.
“With Mak being out potentially for those two games, it’s a chance for us to do some new things,” Neighbors said. “Players having to have a bit of a different roles and I am really interested to see what that looks like. It looks like Mak is day-to-day and we are preparing that we might not have her until the (Dec. 17) Creighton trip.”
The rankings not only bring publicity for the program, but it also benefits for the players in this new day and age of NIL in college sports per Neighbors.
“Good on a couple of accounts,” Neighbors said. “One, for our players, they look at that stuff and that’s something they talk about and with their name, image and likeness, that’s a big deal get clicks. Isn’t that what it is called, clicks? They get clicks and likes and all that. That’s big.”
Neighbors had a colorful analogy about how successful sports have been this season at Arkansas.
“We have had a string here at the University of every team so far that has competed being ranked so you don’t want to be kind of the turd in the punch bowl and be the first team that is not,” Neighbors said. “So I am glad that we got that out of the way.”
Neighbors notes it is campus of winners when it comes the overall sports program.
“…Hey, you walk in our coaches meetings and that’s a tough room to be in during the fall,” Neighbors said. “In the fall, you had football in the Top 10, men’s basketball was like top 8, soccer is going to the Elite Eight and Jason is going to the tournament and wins a game, it’s tough room.
“And you have got cross country and golf and swimming and diving – those are all the sports that we have already had started and we were the only team not ranked. Y’all didn’t say it, so thank you for not publicizing it, but up until this point we were the only team to have competed in a competitive season (and not be ranked).”
The Razorbacks also found out Monday they were 23rd in the debut of this season’s NET, a tool used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to evaluate a team’s résumé.
“I have always said that polls don’t mean everything, but they also don’t mean nothing. They mean that we have played well. I was really happy to see the NET come out as well yesterday and find ourselves in that Top 25 of that.”
Neighbors sized up the poll as one where Arkansas had been building support.
“Like I said when I was talking to y’all last week, I would much rather wait until we deserve it and have earned it instead of people being pressured into voting for us,” Neighbors said. “Obviously jumping in at 21, I think that shows you that a lot of people took a good hard look and also that a lot of people at the bottom of the poll lost.
“That’s the inertia of the poll that we talk a lot about. So it’s a timing thing. I wish it was the last week off the season, but we will do everything we can do to stay ranked and stay in the national conversation.
“…I like where we have been, I liked where we are and teams will keep testing us on where we are going this week with Lamar coming in and Arkansas State on Sunday heading into finals.”
He doesn’t believe his team will let up now that it has entered the rankings.
“Just look at the poll since it started,” Neighbors said. “There were three teams ranked in the top five that are no longer ranked. That has never happened. I saw somebody tweet about how it might have happened one time in the history of the poll and it has happened three times this year.
“So in today’s world of ever changing speed, the second you start thinking that you could be on the outside looking in and I know our group does not want that to happen.”
Photo by John D. James