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story.lead_photo.caption UCA Coach Russ Pennell is shown in this file photo. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

CONWAY -- A quick glance at the University of Central Arkansas men's basketball nonconference schedule and a glaring realization is noticed -- the Bears' first few days of the 2019-20 season are daunting.

UCA is set for road trips at Baylor, Georgetown and Duke, all within the opening week of the season. The Bears also travel to Wichita State, Utah and Marquette in December. UCA Coach Russ Pennell has called it a "monster schedule," but these are the exact early season tests he prefers.

At a glance

Central Arkansas men’s basketball schedule

All times Central

DATE;OPPONENT;TIME

Nov. 5;at Baylor;11 a.m.

Nov. 7;Hendrix;7 p.m.

Nov. 9;at Georgetown;11 a.m.

Nov. 12;at Duke;6 p.m.

Nov. 17;UALR;2 p.m.

Nov. 22;at Cal. Baptist (Empire Classic);9 p.m.

Nov. 23;TBD (Empire Classic);TBA

Dec. 5;at Wichita State;7 p.m.

Dec. 7;at Utah;4 p.m.

Dec. 14;at Pepperdine;7 p.m.

Dec. 18;Incarnate Word*;12:30 p.m.

Dec. 21;Texas A&M-Corpus Christi*;1 p.m.

Dec. 28;at Marquette;1 p.m.

Jan. 2;at Houston Baptist*;7 p.m.

Jan. 4;McNeese State*;3 p.m.

Jan. 8;at New Orleans*;7 p.m.

Jan. 11;Sam Houston State*;3 p.m.

Jan. 15;Stephen F. Austin*;7 p.m.

Jan. 18;at Nicholls State*;3 p.m.

Jan. 25;Abilene Christian*;3 p.m.

Jan. 29;Southeastern Louisiana*;7 p.m.

Feb. 1;at Northwestern State*;3 p.m.

Feb. 5;at Lamar*;7 p.m.

Feb. 8;at McNeese State*;3 p.m.

Feb. 12;New Orleans*;7 p.m.

Feb. 15;at Sam Houston State*;3:30 p.m.

Feb. 19;at Stephen F. Austin*;TBA

Feb. 22;Nicholls State*;3 p.m.

Feb. 29;at Abilene Christian*;3:30 p.m.

Mar. 4;at Southeastern Louisiana*;7 p.m.

Mar. 7;Northwestern State*;3 p.m.

*Southland Conference game

"It's the apex of Division I basketball, those venues," Pennell said. "We're confident that we can go and compete. ... What I don't want to do is have these guys discouraged, disappointed with things that we're requiring them to do to make sure that our school has what it needs to be successful athletically. I believe this team stacks up against anyone in the Southland."

The difficult nonconference slate should also help Pennell gauge his team's mental fortitude, something he said past teams haven't possessed enough.

"We've been competitive here ... but in my opinion the one ingredient we've missed is the mental toughness," Pennell said. "We're really working hard at trying to finish plays and playing to a standard and those type of things."

Last season, UCA finished 14-19 and 8-10 in the Southland Conference, which was tied for seventh in the league. The Bears fell out of the conference tournament in the second round.

UCA returns nine members from that team, including four full-time starters and another with starting experience. But UCA is still largely a young team, with only one senior, forward Aaron Weidenaar, on the roster. Eight of the 14 players on the roster are underclassmen, including five freshmen.

In spite of that, Pennell, who's in his sixth year with the program, believes this is the most depth he's had during his tenure and that the Bears should have a rotation of nine to 10 players.

"It's the best team we've had since we've been here," Pennell said. "There's no question that I feel like we've got the pieces to do it. We got size, we got speed, we got shooters. We've got the ingredients. I feel like I'm baking a cake, and I've got all the ingredients in the kitchen -- I just got to get them all in the bowl and make them all fit together."

UCA lost its leading scorer in guard Thatch Unruh, who averaged 13 points per game last season, but junior point guard DeAndre Jones and junior center Hayden Koval both return. The two were tied for second on the team in scoring last season, each averaging 12.5 points per game. Koval also averaged a team-best 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game, while Jones led the team with 4.9 assists and 2 steals per game.

Pennell expects key returners such as sophomore forward SK Shittu and sophomore guard/forward Eddy Kayouloud to take big leaps this season. Kayouloud, who played on France's Under-20 national team this summer, averaged 9.1 points, 5 rebounds and 25.1 minutes per game last season, while Shittu averaged 3.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 9 minutes.

Easily the biggest addition to the roster is junior Rylan Bergersen, a 6-6, 205-pound guard who transferred from BYU and is eligible this season. Bergersen was a high school teammate with Koval and Jones at Link Year Prep in Branson.

"I feel like [UCA] was a good place to call home," Bergersen said, "and I've loved it since I've been here."

Bergersen, who averaged 1.9 points and 5.8 minutes per game in two seasons at BYU, is expected to be an immediate difference maker for the Bears.

"He helps us immensely and it's because he can score in so many ways," Pennell said. "He's really good in the open court and driving to the goal, but he can also step out and hit the three, and then he's a good foul shooter. He might be about as complete a guard as we've had, meaning he can score in all three phases."

UCA had its first and only winning season under Pennell two seasons ago, when the program finished 18-17 and claimed a berth in the College Basketball Invitational. The Bears would love to replicate similar results this season.

Playing Duke, Georgetown and Baylor isn't designed to pad the win column, but Pennell is expecting his team to be fully tested and ready come conference play and the Southland tournament in March when postseason outcomes are dictated.

"Obviously everyone wants to win it, but what I want to do, I want to be in some grind-it-out games with a lot on the line," Pennell said. "I think that's the way your program grows, because you almost have to get there before you know how you're gonna respond."

Sports on 11/01/2019

Print Headline: 'Monster schedule' awaits UCA men

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