LITTLE ROCK — Tracking the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball program playing in-state schools reveals just three blips on the radar screen spanning the last 72 years, but that is apparently about to change and Hog fans could be getting news in the future that NCAA Division 1 schools in the state will be on future UA schedules.
In early June, the UA announced that Arkansas State and the University of Central Arkansas could be scheduled for all Razorbacks sports excluding football, an expansion of a recent policy that has allowed UA system schools Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas-Pine Bluff to be scheduled.
The last time an in-state school appeared on Arkansas’ regular-season basketball schedule was in 1948 against Arkansas State. But arguably one of the Top 5 most important games in the history of the men’s basketball program was nearly 40 years later (March 1987) in a come-from-behind, 67-64 UA win over ASU in overtime in the first round of the postseason NIT at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
Nolan Richardson was in his second season as head coach at Arkansas and carried a disappointing 30-29 overall record into that game. At the time there was a lot of smoke from UA insiders that defeating Arkansas State was a MUST for Richardson to keep his job as iconic athletic director Frank Broyles had both grown weary of the mediocre results through two seasons following an 11-year run of excellence by the previous coach, Eddie Sutton, as well as Broyles’ disdain for the notion of playing in-state teams that was the driving force behind his program-wide policy to not schedule such games.
In a nutshell, a loss at home to ASU likely would have been the death knell to the Richardson era at Arkansas. Looking back on it, fate would have no hand in helping usher Richardson out the door.
His Hogs fell behind early and trailed by 9 at halftime before eventually sinking to multiple 21-point deficits in the second half before freshmen Ron Huery, Cannon Whitby, and Marion Credit fueled a comeback that pushed the two teams into overtime before the Hogs seized control in the final seconds of the extra period for the victory.
Richardson held onto his job as Head Hog, and what followed over the next 15 seasons were 13 NCAA tournament appearances under his watch that included a national championship, a national runner-up finish, 3 Final Fours, 4 Elite Eights, 6 Sweet 16s, plus an NIT Final Four as Richardson made Arkansas a national hoops force while impressively blazing his trail into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s why the outcome of the ASU game in 1987 goes down as one of the biggest wins in UA history. Without it, Richardson is likely fired and a storied college basketball program in Fayetteville is never forged.
In a twist of irony in October 2019, Richardson’s signature was permanently added to the floor that will forever bear his name — Nolan Richardson Court — at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in a ceremony that preceded Arkansas’ first game against an-instate opponent since that ASU tilt in 1987, an exhibition win over the Little Rock Trojans under first-year head coach Eric Musselman.
And now the stage is set for more games pitting the Razorbacks against in-state opponents from the list of aforementioned D1 programs.
Most of Arkansas’ 2020-21 non-conference schedule is known as 10 opponents have been identified with an 11th that will be a Big 12 team as part of the 2021 Big 12/SEC Challenge. That leaves two more non-conference opponents to be scheduled and named, and with the green light to play in-state schools it makes sense that a regular-season game against ASU, or UALR, or UCA, or UAPB could be added for the upcoming season. Or possibly another exhibition game.
Little Rock likely offers the best NCAA NET rating potential as the Trojans return the bulk of a 21-10 team that won the Sun Belt Conference with a 15-5 league record and finished with a NET ranking of No. 140. Arkansas State went 16-16 a season ago, including 8-12 for 9th place in the 12-team Sun Belt, to go with a final NET ranking of No. 202.
UCA was 10-21 overall, including 9-11 in the Southland Conference, while completing the season with a NET ranking of No. 315. UAPB was 4-26, including 3-15 for 9th place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, to go with a final NET ranking of No. 348.
There are pros and cons to adding any of the four schools to the schedule in terms of determining which one brings more value to the table than the other three, and though it may not happen as soon as ’20-21, the days of not scheduling in-state schools are in the rear-view mirror as Arkansas ushers in year two of the Musselman era.
Here’s what we know so far about Arkansas’s 2020-21 non-conference slate …
* Home games: Oral Roberts in the season-opener on Nov. 10; Northern Illinois on Nov. 28; Lipscomb on Dec. 5; Abilene Christian on Dec. 23; and Texas-Arlington (date yet to be announced).
* Neutral-site games: Two matchups in the MGM Resorts “Main Event” in Las Vegas that includes a field of Louisville, San Francisco, and Colorado State with games to be played Nov. 20-22; against Oklahoma at the BOK Center in Tulsa on Dec. 12; against Old Dominion in North Little Rock on December 19.
* Road games: at Tulsa, defending American Athletic Conference champions (date yet to be announced); Big 12 opponent in the Big 12/SEC Challenge (game likely to be played in January 2021).