When Arkansas fans first looked at the Razorbacks’ non-conference schedule, it probably didn’t leap off the page at them.
But it is becoming very clear that it should have.
The Razorbacks (3-4) will host Evansville (7-1) on Tuesday night at 8:05 p.m. and then Tennessee Tech (7-2) on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. with both games being televised on the SEC Network.
“We wanted to play good teams,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. “They (Evansville) are one of those teams that play well, have a good RPI and they will test your mentality, test your toughness, test a lot of things.
“It is just a good test for us more than anything else. There are no cupcakes. There are none out there. You have to play teams and you have to be prepared to play.”
Evansville is a team that went 24-12 last season, won the CIT Tournament and returns all five starters for the third straight season under ninth-year head coach Marty Simmons.
The Purple Aces have won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last season with that only loss being to No. 15 Providence 74-64 earlier this season.
“I think that is a credit to Coach Simmons being there and getting his type of players,” Anderson said. “He’s been there and has some seasoned, veteran-type players. I’m sure that all coaches would love to do that for their program.”
They are ranked sixth in the Mid-Major Poll, something that also features future Arkansas foes in No. 13 North Florida (5-2) and No. 24 Mercer (6-1).
“They are a team that is the sum of all their parts,” Anderson said. “They are averaging 22 assists a game. That means they share the basketball. I love watching their motion and what they do. A lot of cutting, screening, slip and screen … they do a good job playing efficient basketball. And they spread it.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has Evansville projected to make the NCAA Tournament along with Akron, who beat Arkansas 88-80 at Bud Walton Arena last month.
“They are mid-majors to you guys but they are major college teams to us,” Anderson said. “You can’t look at the names, not in this day and time. You see all around that people are paying at home and losing to teams at home.
“It’s a very good schedule. Don’t look at names and don’t get fooled by the name. Last year we had a very good schedule and this year we have an even tougher schedule.
“It’s a schedule that is going to serve us well, I think in a lot of ways. It’s going to get us prepared for SEC play and we find out a little bit more about ourselves.”
Evansville is led by 6-2, 210-pound senior guard D.J. Balentine (22.3), the nation’s leading active scorer with 1,944 career points.
Balentine is dishing out six assists per game and joins with 6-10, 225-pound center Egidijus Mockevicius (17.5, 13.5) to give the Purple Aces a high-scoring inside-outside duo.
“I think Balentine is the leading scorer in the nation right now,” Anderson said. “We know he can the ball in the hole. He is going to be one of the all-time top Missouri Valley players in terms of scoring. No question about it he is a big-time player
“….But he is also their leading assists guy. He is getting over five assists a game. So he is a guy who is a dangerous player.”
Balentine had 32 points and 5 assists in Evansville’s 85-81 win over Murray State on Saturday night.
“He is one of those triple threat guys,” Anderson said. “He can shoot it, he can put it on the floor and he can really pass the basketball.”
Arkansas hopes to add 6-10 sophomore forward Trey Thompson back into the rotation on Tuesday. He has been out the last three games with a badly sprained ankle.
“It’s going to to be a game-time decision,” Anderson said. “ We are going to try to work him out today. He went a little bit yesterday and we will try and him work him out again today. It will probably be a game-time decision.”
Arkansas comes into the game off a 88-85 loss at Wake Forest in its first true road game of the season.
“The Wake Forest game is a game where I thought we improved,” Anderson said. “You may look at the numbers and not think we did but I thought there were some areas that we really improved.
“We got down early in that game 14 and our guys did not panic. We showed a lot of poise even with a short bench not having Trey. That was a big advantage for the team we were paying against because Wake Forest is a team of size. I thought their size in the end was probably the difference in that game.
“But I liked what took place even as we got ourselves going down the stretch. Twice with the ball with the score tied right there within that minute mark you have got to be able to make plays. We had guys in position to make plays and that’s the learning curve of this basketball team. You have got to be able to make those plays.”
Junior guard Dusty Hannahs comes off the bench to lead Arkansas in scoring at 17.6 points per game while 6-10 junior center Moses Kingsley is averaging 16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds.
They are joined by 6-3 senior guard Anthlon Bell (15.7) and 6-4 freshman guard Jimmy Whitt (10.3) to give the Razorbacks’ four double-digit scorers.
Hannahs leads the SEC in 3-point percentage at 48.8 percent (20-of-41) and is third in the nation in free throw shooting at 96.3 percent (25-of-56) while 6-1 senior point guard Jabril Durham is third nationally in assists at 8.0 per game.
“This team is going to be able to score,” Anderson said. “We lost quite a bit. You look at the stats and you wonder with the guys coming back, how are they going to score?
“But now our problem is on the defensive side. We have got to stop people.”