Where Did the Rivalry Go?

Thursday the Red Wolves face UALR for the 81st time in the second most played basketball series for Arkansas State. But something is missing.

What at one time was an attention grabbing rivalry within Arkansas has become an after-thought game.

AState is currently seven and a half games out of first in the Sun Belt and UALR is seven games back.

Relevance is missing. The games simply haven’t mattered to the national picture or had much relevance to the Sun Belt race. Last season AState finished ahead of UALR but was seven games out of first, the previous season AState won the Sun Belt West but was 7 games back of league leading MTSU. UALR took the division in 2012 but finished two games behind the league leader. Likewise AState won the division in 2011 and was two games back of the league leader. UALR that season finished six games back from FAU but won the Sun Belt Tournament.

For an old series, AState vs UALR was slow developing into a serious rivalry.

After the Trojans moved to Division I the Indians and Trojans played sporadically but never generated much interest from AState fans other than a chance for Central Arkansas fans to see the Indians out at Barton Coliseum and see all three of the state’s Division I schools (at the time) represented. AState in red, UALR in white, and the Hog painted on the court. UALR hired Mike Newell in 1984 and after a 17 win first season (losing to AState), never won fewer than 20 games. UALR would make the NCAA Tournament three times in his six seasons with the Trojans. His reputation was made in his second season when 14 seed UALR defeated 3 seed Notre Dame. For the first time AState fans had some real awareness of UALR. The teams met only one other time in his six years and UALR won that game in Little Rock.

The Indians hired Nelson Catalina the same year Newell arrived at UALR. His third year started a five year period where AState won 20 or more four different times and made four NIT appearances.

The games were still sporadic but generated more interest.

Newell moved on to Lamar and shortly after the Trojans were tabbed to enter the realignment raided Sun Belt but in short order the league was so decimated that it was absorbed by the American South putting the Indians and Trojans in the same league.

The games though still did not rise to the level of a real rivalry. AState won the first conference meeting by five in Jonesboro and then won again by three in Little Rock. The Sun Belt Tournament in Biloxi when the third seeded Indians faced fifth seed UALR. AState was held to a season low 45 points and were edged at the end by UALR in a game telecast live in Arkansas.

For the first decade of the merged Sun Belt, at least one of the Natural State teams would finish in the top three of the league seven times. Each finished atop the league once and AState even took an NCAA berth.

AState vs. UALR grew into an event that was often telecast across most of the state and was a strong game at the box office.

Of the 24 biggest crowds at AState, five involved UALR, including 10,312 for the 1998 game, the second largest crowd AState men’s basketball has drawn at home. In the nine years since the smaller Stephens Center opened, AState represents seven of the nine largest crowds. The 2002 meeting at Alltel (now Verizon Arena) drew 12,985.

From 1986 to 1999 AState and UALR combined for four NCAA and six NIT appearances.

The battle on Thursday is boiling down to pride. Attendance for each men's program shows that is currently in short supply.

Each team has swept a season series over the other seven times, though UALR has twice avoided a series sweep with a conference tournament win. The Trojans will be going for their eighth season sweep of AState Thursday night.

Fan pride likely will not be much on display at the Stephens Center. The games no longer draw the big crowds of the past and the TV interest is confined to post-game recaps. The most recent RPI has AState at #268 and UALR at #285.

In all likelihood the greatest significance to the meeting in Little Rock will be renewed dissatisfaction from the fans of the losing program. The game’s significance to the conference is that the loser will be a front-runner to miss the conference tournament since only the top eight seeds advance. Currently Texas State holds the lead for the 7th seed at 5-10 and is two games out of 6th, UALR is 8th at 5-10 (TXST would win tiebreaker thanks to a win over Georgia State). AState is in 9th in the first spot out at 4-10 and Troy is the 10th seeded team at 4-11 (Appalachian State at 6-8 is out because of APR penalties).

While most fans have lost interest in the series (and the trophy that goes with the game played in Little Rock, unlike serious rivalry trophies), there will be fans of the winning team who will sum up the year with "At least we beat them the last time we played" and fans of the losing team proclaiming the loss is proof of how far their team has slipped, so maybe there is some hope of the rivalry becoming relevant again.