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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas coach Eric Musselman directs his players Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, during practice in the Eddie Sutton Gymnasium inside the Basketball Performance Center in Fayetteville. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- Eric Musselman's debut as the University of Arkansas men's basketball coach will coincide with Darrell Walker's homecoming.

Walker, an All-American guard as an Arkansas senior in 1983, is in his second season as coach of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans, who play Musselman's Razorbacks at 3 p.m. Sunday at Walton Arena.

The main event will be the naming of the arena's court in honor of Nolan Richardson, who led the Razorbacks to a school-record 389 victories and the 1994 national championship.

But having the Razorbacks and Trojans play is a pretty big deal, too.

It's an exhibition game that won't count on either team's record, but there's a historic aspect because the Arkansas and UALR men's teams are meeting in basketball for the first time.

Musselman is new to Arkansas, but he understands the matchup's significance.

"I think this is a little bit more unique than just a normal exhibition game," Musselman said. "I think because of the statewide stuff, it adds intrigue, for sure."

Walker praised Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek for helping institute a policy in which the Razorbacks are allowed to play UALR and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which already has happened in several sports.

"It's great that Arkansas and Hunter have a very open mind about playing in-state schools," Walker said. "I think it's a win-win for both sides."

Musselman said it's appropriate Walker is coaching against his alma mater in Sunday's game.

"I think it's awesome that we're playing Arkansas-Little Rock," Mussleman said. "I think it's incredible that on the day we're honoring Coach Richardson, we'll have an all-time Razorback great in Darrell be the coach of the opposing team.

"It couldn't be any better. To me, it makes perfect sense that we're playing Coach Walker and his team."

This won't be the first time Musselman and Walker -- who both have been NBA head coaches -- are facing each other in a game.

Last season when Musselman was Nevada's coach, the No. 6-ranked Wolf Pack beat UALR 87-59 at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.

That Nevada team was led by seniors and twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin, and it won a third consecutive Mountain West Conference title after advancing to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in 2018.

Musselman's first Arkansas team has several returnees from last season's 18-16 squad that played in the NIT -- including preseason All-SEC sophomore guard Isaiah Joe -- and added graduate transfers in guard Jimmy Whitt and forward Jeantal Cylla. But the Razorbacks are picked to finish 11th in the SEC after losing big man Daniel Gafford, who was the No. 38 pick in the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls.

"As far as expectations go, the only thing that we really concern ourselves with is the next game," Musselman said. "It's no different than being at Nevada and being a top 10 team through the first 17 weeks last year. We only concerned ourselves with the next game on the schedule. That's how we're going to approach this year.

"Obviously, the No. 11, our guys know about it. We talked about it [on Tuesday when the SEC poll was released]. Then we'll leave it alone and worry about trying to get better on a daily basis."

Joe and sophomore guard Desi Sills, who both joined Musselman at SEC media days, are from Fort Smith and Jonesboro, respectively. They understand playing UALR isn't just another exhibition game for the Razorbacks.

"It's a big deal for us to be playing an in-state team," Sills said. "We know they want to beat us, and we want to beat them.

"A lot of fans are going to be riled up about it. We've got to make sure we come out with a win on the new court."

UALR was 10-21 last season in Walker's debut, but Joe said the Razorbacks aren't paying attention to the Trojans' record.

"I think it's going to be great for basketball in the state of Arkansas as a whole for us to play Little Rock," Joe said. "Even though it's an exhibition game, we know Little Rock has a good team and they'll be ready and will play hard against us.

"We can't take anything for granted, and we have to make sure we come out and play hard, too. Hopefully, we can put on a good show for the fans."

Musselman and Walker said they both want to see how different player combinations play together on the court and how their teams execute on offense and defense.

"We're trying to figure out who we are and what our identity is, rotations, starters," Musselman said. "We want to remain healthy. We want to have a really good game.

"Hopefully, we'll see some good things, but we'll also see some things we need to get better at to get ready for our opening game against Rice."

The Razorbacks play the Owls in Walton Arena on Nov. 5, when the Trojans open at Missouri State. UALR's second game is at Illinois State.

"I'm glad we're playing in Bud Walton Arena, because our first two games are on the road," Walker said. "So playing at Arkansas will be a great road test for us."

Walker said he knows it's time for the Razorbacks and Trojans to play different teams after offseason workouts and preseason practices.

"My team and Eric's team are tired of going against each other in practice," Walker said. "Now we get to play a game with fans and referees, then break down the film and see what we really, really need to work on to get ready for the season."

Arkansas' and UALR's women's teams are meeting in an afternoon regular-season game Dec. 21 at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock with Arkansas' men taking the court that night to play Valparaiso.

Why not an Arkansas-UALR doubleheader? That's not possible right now because of SEC scheduling policies.

The SEC mandates that its teams' nonconference schedules be against teams with a combined Ratings Percentage Index -- a ranking the NCAA uses based on performance and strength of schedule -- over the previous threes seasons be at No. 150 or higher.

UALR's RPI for the previous three seasons is No. 263, meaning it would drag down the Razorbacks' nonconference schedule below SEC standards.

Walker gets it.

"We won 10 games last year, so we know we've got to get our RPI higher," Walker said. "We're getting ready to pass a rule in the Sun Belt that we can't play NCAA Division II teams anymore, so I understand the SEC rule.

"We would love to play Arkansas every year in the regular season, but we all know that first we've got to get our program to a higher level. Believe me, we're working hard to make it happen."

Sports on 10/19/2019

Print Headline: Hogs vs. Trojans to offer spectacles


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