FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas begins a four-game, five-day road swing traveling from Chicago to Las Vegas this week.
Arkansas (6-2) opens with Northwestern (7-2), who is receiving votes in this week’s poll, Thursday in a noon contest in the Windy City. The Wildcats are coming off two big wins over Purdue and at Kansas State last week. They also have a win over DePaul, the Razorbacks’ first-round opponent at next week’s Duel in the Desert.
Speaking of the desert, Arkansas departs Chicago after the Northwestern game traveling to Las Vegas for the eight-team, three-day tournament hosted by UNLV.
Arkansas faces the Blue Demons (7-3) at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19, with their second and third round opponents based on wins and losses. The other teams in the tournament include Florida State (8-0), Hawai’i (3-5), Kansas State (4-5), UNLV (4-5), UT-San Antonio (4-3) and Virginia Commonwealth (4-2).
“We have a tough task ahead of us,” said Arkansas head coach Tom Collen. “This stretch will be two or three of our tougher games in the non-conference schedule. It’s going to be a test but these are the kinds of games and experiences that help us prepare for the SEC.
“The key is to play well and get out to a fast start,” Collen continued. “Northwestern is a better team today than when we scheduled them two years ago. They have two top 25 wins at beat Kansas State at Kansas State. We are going to have to play extremely well to win that game.”
The Razorbacks have played very well at times throughout the early part of the season. Arkansas had a 16-point lead at No. 18 Oklahoma and played nearly flawless basketball against Western Kentucky in a win in Cancun, Mexico.
Arkansas entered the season with three all-star candidates on the roster and those players have risen to the challenge of leading this young team. Senior Charity Ford and sophomores C’eira Ricketts and Lyndsay Harris rank first, second and third in scoring with Ricketts coming on strong in the last five games.
“We’ve worked really hard this week on ourselves,” Ford said. “We’ve gotten better as a team this week and we know the next couple of games are going to be tough. We’re preparing one game at a time and we have to be on it every game.”
The play of Arkansas’ guards was critical in the wins and losses a year ago and is again key for the Razorbacks this year. Arkansas, however, has made significant strides in the four and five positions this season and those changes are paying off.
“We made it a priority to get better at the post,” Collen said. “We have five different players at the four and five with a wide range of talents and we are getting better.”
Senior Ashley McCray, a junior college transfer from a year ago, along with junior transfer Skye Rees, sophomore Ashley Daniels and freshmen Sarah Watkins and Quistelle Williams account for the play down low this season.
Daniels leads the team in rebounding averaging 6.5 rpg. Watkins and Williams can both step out for the three-point shot as well as battle in the paint.
“Those type of players really stretch the floor for the defense,” Collen said. “They give us a lot of options and are hard to defend.”
The Razorbacks return from Las Vegas, Nev., for the holiday break returning to campus Dec. 26, as they begin preparation for Sam Houston State Dec. 29. The Bearcats are the final non-conference game for Arkansas and the first of three consecutive home games for the Razorbacks.