FAYETTEVILLE — The last time the University of Arkansas basketball team had a season opener as notable as tonight’s game against Texas, the Razorbacks were the defending national champions.
Arkansas opened the 1994-95 season against Massachusetts in the Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass.
The Minutemen, coached by John Calipari, were ranked No. 3 and beat the No. 1 Razorbacks 104-80.
“We got spanked,” Nolan Richardson, Arkansas’ coach at the time, said this week. “But it opened our eyes.
“We didn’t realize what a big target we had on our chest. We were the defending champs and got everybody’s best shot that season.”
Arkansas, which returned all of its starters, recovered from the 24-point loss to Massachusetts to reach the NCAA Tournament title game again before losing to UCLA and finished 32-7.
In the 24 years since then, the Razorbacks have opened against mid-major programs and always at home except for a 72-49 victory over Winthrop at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 19, 2004.
Not only is Arkansas opening away from home — at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in the Armed Services Classic — against a team from another Power 5 conference, but the Razorbacks are playing their old Southwest Conference rivals in a nationally televised game on ESPN.
“I think it’s wonderful Arkansas is opening with Texas,” Richardson said. “It’s a great game for the fans.”
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson was an assistant for Richardson for 17 years, including the Razorbacks’ final 6 seasons in the SWC when they went 10-5 against Texas before moving to the SEC.
In the 1990 NCAA Midwest Regional final, the Razorbacks beat the Longhorns 88-85 to advance to the Final Four.
“We’ve had some great, great games with Texas,” Anderson said. “It’s a big rivalry. Those games meant a lot.
“This one here is the first game of the season, so it’s an opportunity for us to go out and try to establish who we are.”
Sophomore forward Daniel Gafford, a preseason All-SEC pick, and junior forward Adrio Bailey are the only Razorbacks with starting experience. Gafford started the final 26 games last season when the Razorbacks made the NCAA Tournament and lost to Butler 79-62 to finish 23-12. Bailey has 18 career starts.
Texas, which opened with a 71-59 victory over Eastern Illinois on Tuesday night, returns four starters from last season’s 19-15 team that lost to Nevada 87-83 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Longhorns’ five-man recruiting class was ranked No. 8 nationally by ESPN and 247Sports.
“It doesn’t faze me,” Bailey said. “Just like we have to play Texas, they have to play Arkansas.”
The Razorbacks have nine newcomers, including sophomore guards Jalen Harris and Mason Jones and freshman guard Isaiah Joe, who all started in the team’s exhibition victories over Tusculum 96-47 and Southwest Baptist 100-63 along with Gafford and Bailey.
Anderson, in his 17th season as college head coach, said he’s never had such a young team.
“It’s going to be some uncharted waters,” he said. “We’ll get more answers to the questions that are at hand.”
Opening against a more-experienced Texas team, Anderson said, shouldn’t bother the youthful Razorbacks.
“I think if you’re a player, you look forward to that,” he said. “And what better way to find out right off the bat where you from a team standpoint.
“We get a chance to get a great evaluation early on. Whether we win or lose it’s going to be a lesson for our basketball team.”
Anderson, whose Razorbacks beat Texas 77-74 in Houston during the 2016-17 season, said he jumped at the chance to play the Longhorns at Fort Bliss when contacted by ESPN.
“What a great venue to do it, on ESPN at Fort Bliss in front of the servicemen,” he said. “What a way to honor the troops that protect our country.
“To me, it’s a great honor for our program to be selected.”
Tonight’s game will be played in the Joshua W. Soto Physical Fitness Center with a capacity of 1,200.
“It’s going to be basketball,” Anderson said. “The goals will be 10-feet high and the court will be 94-by-50 feet, and hopefully we’ll put it in the hole more than Texas. That’s the biggest key right there.”
Anderson said he always has Richardson talk to his teams before the season starts. Richardson’s message to this year’s Razorbacks naturally included some of his thoughts on the Arkansas-Texas rivalry.
“I mentioned the fact that Texas has always been Arkansas’ No. 1 team to hate,” Richardson said with a chuckle. “So therefore it’s not just another game.
“You go in there with the mindset that you’ve come to play some good basketball and let the chips fall where they may.”
Richardson has seen the Razorbacks practice a few times.
“We’ve got a lot of youth, but that’s not all bad if you have something to work with,” Richardson said. “I like the makeup of the team.
“I think it’s good to get away from home immediately to open up the season. Hopefully, it’ll help the team more than staying at home and playing some soft game.”
Arkansas men vs Texas in Armed Services Classic
WHEN 6 p.m. today
WHERE Joshua W. Soto Physical Fitness Center, Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas.
RECORDS Arkansas 0-0; Texas 1-0
SERIES Arkansas leads 87-67
RADIO Razorback Sports Network
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
POS., NAME, HT., YR.;PPG;RPG
G Matt Coleman, 6-2;So;13.0;3.0
G Elijah Mitrou-Long;6-1;Jr.;9.0;6.0
G Jase Febres;6-5;So,;9.0;2.0
F Dylan Osetkowski;6-9;Sr.;9.0;5.0
F Jericho Sims;6-9;So.;5.0;5.0
COACH Shaka Smart (51-50 in fourth season at Texas, 214-106 in 10th season overall)
POS., NAME, HT., YR.;PPG;RPG*
G Jalen Harris, 6-2; So;10.0;2.5
G Isaiah Joe, 6-5, Fr.;18.5;2.4
G Mason Jones, 6-5;So.;12.5;4.0
F Daniel Gafford;6-11;15.0;10.5
F Adrio Bailey, 6-6;Jr.;8.5;5.0
COACH Mike Anderson (151-86 in eight season at Arkansas, 351-184 overall in 17 seasons)
(* Stats are from two exhibition games)
CHALK TALK Texas opened the season with a 71-59 victory over Eastern Illinois at home on Tuesday night … Longhorns 6-4 senior guard Kerwin Roach, who averaged 12.3 points as a starter last season, didn’t play against Eastern Illinois because of an undisclosed disciplinary reason but will dress out for the Arkansas game … Arkansas is 14-3 against Texas in neutral site games, including a 77-74 victory at the Toyota Center in Houston during the 2016-17 season in the teams’ most recent meeting … The Razorbacks beat NCAA Division II teams Tusculum 96-47 and Southwest Baptist 100-63 in two exhibition games … Texas had closed scrimmages against LSU and Texas A&M rather than play exhibition games … Razorbacks freshman guard Isaiah Joe hit 11 of 18 three-pointers (11 of 18) in the exhibition games … Arkansas is 77-18 all-time in season openers and has won 23 in a row since losing to Massachusetts 104-80 in Springfield, Mass., to open the 1994-95 season.
Sports on 11/09/2018