NORTH LITTLE ROCK - So much for the prelims.
Arkansas is off to its best start ever under fourth-year head coach John Pelphrey after dispatching three overmatched foes, but its unbeaten record gets a major test Friday night as the Razorbacks take a step up in competition.
That's when Arkansas (3-0) welcomes UAB (3-1) in to North Little Rock's Verizon Arena for a 7 p.m. contest in the team's only Central Arkansas appearance of the season – a day ahead of the Razorback football team hosting LSU there as well.
"We love it and we get excited when we have a chance to go down and play in Central Arkansas and play in Verizon Arena and North Little Rock," Pelphrey said. "That is part of what makes a Razorback special is having a chance to get out and go among the people so to speak. It has been a part of our history with games in the past that we have played at different places outside of Fayetteville.
"I can tell you as a Coach and I think the players feel it, too, it is exciting for us," Pelphrey said. "It has always been an unbelievable crowd down there and I am sure it will be again We are going to need it because we are going against a really good opponent. We can draw a lot of energy off of that and it is just a big, big weekend for the University of Arkansas regardless (with the Razorback football team playing LSU in Little Rock on Saturday)."
The Mike Davis-coached Blazers are coming off an 82-58 home win over South Alabama in which they used a 30-6 run to start the second half after leading by just three points at intermission.
The only loss for UAB – who won a school-record 25 games last season under the former Indiana coach and reached the NIT quarterfinals – has been a 69-66 one at Arizona State last weekend.
"Mike is doing another great job with his team and even though they lost a lot (three starters) it looks like they are right back in the same situation they were a year ago," Pelphrey said. "They are playing great. They are long, they are athletic, they move that ball, they are a very tough match up from a defensive standpoint scheme of things. They are very, very hardnosed and tough. Just like a year ago, we have a big challenge."
The contest is rematch of a game last Jan. 2nd, which happened to be the same day as the Razorback football team playing in the Liberty Bowl.
Arkansas was in position to upset No. 24 UAB, but Howard Crawford's dunk off an out-of-bounds play with one second left let the Blazers leave Fayetteville after handing the Razorbacks a crushing loss.
"That was a difficult loss for us," Pelphrey said. "They were a very good basketball team. I thought we played very well, didn't do a very good job on the last play and that was a tough day for us.
Arkansas junior guard Rotnei Clarke certainly remembers the heart-breaking loss, which dropped his team to 7-7 and lifted the Blazers to 12-2.
"I definitely remember the buzzer beater underneath out of bounds, the lay up they got that beat us," Clarke said. "We know they are a unbelievable team, a really good team. Coach said they should probably be ranked like they were last year when they came in here. They are a really good team. We have got to be ready, we have got to get our legs back, get rested and get focused."
Arkansas could have the return of 6-7 forward Marshawn Powell for this game after he missing the first two this week.
Powell had a team-high 22 points last season against UAB.
He has rested an injured ankle and joined fellow front court player Michael Sanchez – a 6-8, 235-pound redshirt junior out for the next five weeks with a broken foot – on the bench just looking on.
"It is possible that he will play on Friday," Pelphrey said. "Obviously coming through this week we understood that he wasn't going to play the first two games. It's a possibility…We are not the biggest team in the world as it is and to have Mike and Marshawn both out, those two guys could help us."
Southeast Missouri State head coach Dickey Nutt has seen both teams now having lost 78-56 at UAB back on Nov. 13 and falling to Arkansas 66-56 on Wednesday.
He offered up this scouting report on the Blazers, who return two starters from last season's squad.
The returning starters are 6-4 senior guard Jamarr Sanders (14.5, 5.0) and 5-8 senior guard Aaron Johnson (8.8) who now join 6-6 England-born forward Ovie Soko (13.3, 5.8), 6-9, 205-pound sophomore forrward Cameron Moore (18.5, 9.5) and 6-4 redshirt freshman guard Robert Williams in this season's starting line up.
UAB also has former Conway star Preston Purifoy (4.0) on its roster and he has played in all four games with an average of 15.5 minutes per contest.
"You (Arkansas) need to get ready because they are going to be very athletic at every position, they are going to show you some size, they are going to shoot the ball just as well," Nutt said. "They are very, very strong and physical, very athletic, a Conference USA team that in my opinion will wind up in the top three in that league. They are going to be very, very good. They are very, very tough. It will be a tough game for them."
As for Arkansas, Nutt sees some positives as well, including Clarke (a game-high 19 points versus SEMO) and senior center Delvon Johnson, who had 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks in the win.
"They are good," Nutt said of the Razorbacks. "They are big and strong and athletic…I feel like they are going to be good. They are athletic and when you have a guy like Clarke that can shoot the ball and you get it to him, you've got a chance. He is so consistent. Just watching him warm up before the game in warm ups, he just very seldom misses.
"And their big guys on the inside, Delvon is a really good player," Nutt said. "They are going to be good. I give them a lot of credit."
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