Russ Pennell's UCA Bears face daunting 2017-18 schedule


Coach Russ Pennell’s University of Central Arkansas men’s basketball Bears will once again face a formidable and rigorous schedule for the upcoming 2017-18 season.

The Bears who played three NCAA Sweet 16 teams last season (Butler, Michigan, Wisconsin), will take on three teams from the Pac-12 and one each from the Big 12, American Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference, Sun Belt and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference during their non-conference schedule. That is coupled with an 18-game Southland Conference slate that begins at home at the Farris Center. on Dec. 28 against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“We want to compete against those type of teams and get ourselves ready for the Southland Conference race. And it’s huge in recruiting. I think the guys we have here now, that was a big selling point, to be able to play at places like Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler), Gallagher-Iba Arena (Oklahoma State), Pauley Pavilion (UCLA).’

UCA opens the season against the Baylor Bears (Big 12) in Waco, Texas, then travels to the west coast for the first of three visits encompassing four games. The Bears will take on the UCLA Bruins at storied Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 15. Baylor finished 27-8 last season and won two games in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins were even better, going 31-5 and winning twice in the NCAAs before losing to Kentucky. At home, those teams combined to go 32-3 a year ago.

Those first two games will be part of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

“For our guys to be able to go practice and play in the building that John Wooden coached in,’ said Pennell, who coached there several times while on staffs in the Pac-12. “You think of all the legendary players who have played in that building, not only for UCLA but against UCLA. It’s quite a storied place, and I think our guys will definitely enjoy that.

“And it also helps that we have two freshman from LA, so they get a chance to go back and play in front of their family at a venue like that.

“And Baylor, for the past 5 to 7 years, has been as good as anyone in the country. Even though they’ve had some guys go to the NBA, they’ re just reloading down there in Waco. So going there will be a big challenge. I know one thing, it will be a tough place to start the season.’

UCA’s first home game will be against Alcorn State (SWAC) on Nov. 19, followed by road games at South Carolina State (MEAC) and Tulsa (AAC). Morehead State comes to the Farris Center on Nov. 27 before the Bears play their first of two games against the Little Rock Trojans on the 29th in Little Rock.

Another trip out west to face the University of San Francisco Dons (WCC) on Dec. 4 and the University of California Bears (Pac-12) on Dec. 6.

“The San Fran-Cal trip is a good one,’ Pennell said, “and it makes sense because we get to stay in one spot and play two great programs. The WCC is such a a good basketball league, and the Dons have a storied history, too. And Cal is a very good basketball team, year in and year out. That’s another tough Pac-12 opponent.

The Little Rock Trojans visit the Farris Center on Dec. 9 before the Bears break for final exams. UCA then returns the game at Morehead State on Dec. 17 before heading to the University of Oregon to take on the Ducks on Dec. 20. The Ducks only went 33-6 last season (17-0 at home) and lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Final Four.

“That was the last one we got on the schedule,’ said Pennell, “and that will be a great trip. That court is such a crazy design (at Matthew Knight Arena), the guys will love playing on that. That should be a fun trip.’

The Bears, who reached the SLC Tournament last season, will host nine conference games at the Farris Center.

“I like the conference schedule we have this year,’ said Pennell. “It’s basically back to the way it used to be. I think the schedule is really fair. We don’t have any extended 3-4 game road trips. About the time you’re tired of the road, you get to come home. And I really like the Wednesday-Saturday format. It just gives us a little more preparation time and the guys get to rest a little more. So I’m really pleased with that.’

Pennell said he sees no clear favorite in this year’s SLC race.

“I think the conference is really wide open, I really do,’ he said. “The good teams last year lost a lot. I think we have probably as much as anyone coming back. So I think we have an opportunity.’

--Courtesy UCA Athletics


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