The interim tag is gone, but not much else has changed for University of Central Arkansas men's basketball Coach Anthony Boone.
His goal, like that of his predecessor and longtime boss Russ Pennell, will not waver.
"What we were trying to accomplish will be the same," Boone said. "Coach Pennell's goal was to make this program a consistent competitor in the Southland Conference and have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament."
UCA's best season under Pennell came in 2017-18 when the Bears finished 18-17 overall and 10-8 in the Southland, good for seventh place in the conference.
"It's not a sprint to get to where we want to get to," Boone said. "That will cause a program to peter out. We want to establish something that will be sustainable. That only happens by continuing to work hard and being tough-minded."
Toughness and determination were Boone's hallmarks at Ole Miss, where he was a four-year starter, earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and then a masters in mathematics while serving as a grad assistant.
His intangible contributions as a player were so considerable that his uniform (No. 41) was retired despite a career average of 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
"It was the hard work, the determination," Boone said. "Those are the things my coaches valued above all things. And because of that, I do, too."
Boone needed all of his mental skills when he was asked to take over the Bears when UCA parted ways with Pennell after a 1-8 start last December, and even after the interim tag was removed March 7.
"It was bittersweet," Boone said of replacing Pennell, a man he worked under for 11 seasons in college and professional basketball. "I didn't know that I would be able to get the job after the season was over. It was never a certainty until it actually happens."
UCA went 9-13 in the games coached by Boone -- 9-11 in the Southland -- but came up one game short of qualifying for a Southland Conference Tournament.
It was a tournament left incomplete when the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We pretty much kept things together," Boone said. "We did lose one guy."
That guy, 7-foot center Hayden Koval (12.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg), transferred to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, but UCA retained five of its top six scorers: Rylan Bergersen (15.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), DeAndre Jones (12.9 ppg, 6.0 apg), Eddy Kayouloud (12.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Jared Chatham (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Jaxson Baker (7.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
Also expected back is sophomore Khaleem Bennett, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in 2018-1019 before redshirting last season while recovering from a knee surgery.
"That is a pretty solid group," Boone said.
UCA will look to two newcomers -- true freshman Churchill Bounds, a 6-10, 260-pound center from Cumberland, Md., and Samson George, a 6-7 graduate transfer from Pittsburgh -- to fill the void created by Koval's departure.
"He should be able to give us a pretty good spark," Boone said of George. "He didn't get a lot of time at Pitt, but that's understandable. He should be able to do some things not a lot of our guys can do."
Boone said he thinks the returning players won't have to necessarily score more as long as George and Bennett contribute as he expects and Jones, a senior point guard, concentrates on being the "straw that stirs the drink."
Boone said he will add some of his personal touches this season.
"Probably pick up the pace, play a little faster," he said. "We want to take advantage of the guys' abilities a little bit more. We have some guys who are very versatile."
UCA's eight-game nonconference schedule includes a trip to Oxford, Miss., to play Ole Miss, Arkansas State University and Jackson State in the Justin Reed Classic; a trip to Fayetteville to play the University of Arkansas; and games at Missouri State, Saint Louis, Mississippi State and Baylor before conference play begins Jan. 2.
"We want to focus on playing well rather than winning games," Boone said. "That sounds weird. You play to win the game. If we play to a certain standard, the wins will take care of themselves."
Boone is hopeful but realistic about how far the pandemic will allow college basketball to go, especially the NCAA suggesting that if anyone tests positive the whole team should be put in a 14-day quarantine.
"We'll have to be extra careful and proactive, not just with being safe with covid but also with their mental health," he said.
Boone overcame four knee surgeries during his time at Ole Miss to start 79 of 94 games. He tells his players he doesn't think he could have made this UCA team.
Boone, originally from Helena-West Helena, said he would have tried to beat them with hard work, effort and hustle plays.
"Those are the kind of things we celebrate in practice more than anything else," he said. "It comes from what my coaches did for me."
Bears at a glance
LAST SEASON 10-21 overall, 9-11 Southland
COACH Anthony Boone (9-13 as interim in 2019-20)
KEY RETURNERS F Rylan Bergersen (15.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), PG DeAndre Jones (12.9 ppg, 6.0 apg), F Eddy Kayouloud (12,2 ppg, 6.1 rpg),F Jared Chatham (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and G/F Jaxson Baker (7.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
KEY LOSS 7-0 C Hayden Koval
KEY NEWCOMERS Freshman center Churchill Bounds (6-10), graduate transfer Samson George (6-7)
NOTEWORTHY Five of UCA’s top six scorers from 2019-2020 are back. … There are 3 freshmen who are in-state walk-ons: G Suazell Farmer (West Helena), G Kragen Bradley (Clinton), G Brendan Simmons (El Dorado). … Boone took over as interim coach after the Bears went 1-8 under Russ Pennell to start last season. The interim tag was removed on March 7 by Athletic Director Brad Teague. Boone was an assistant to Pennell for 11 years — at Division II Grand Canyon (2009-2013), with the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA (2013) and at UCA (2014-2019). Boone spent the previous nine seasons working with head coach Tevester Anderson at Murray State (2000-2003) and Jackson State (2003-2009).
UCA MEN’S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
All times Central
11/25;at *Ole Miss;TBA
11/27; *Jackson State ;TBA
12/1;at Missouri State;TBA
12/8;at Saint Louis;TBA
12/16;at Mississippi State;TBA
1/2;at McNeese State University;TBA
1/9;Sam Houston State;4 p.m.
1/13;at Stephen F. Austin;TBA
1/23;at Abilene Christian;TBA
1/27;at Southeastern Louisiana;TBA
1/30;Northwestern State;4 p.m.
2/6;McNeese State;4 p.m.
2/10;at New Orleans;TBA
2/13;at Sam Houston State;TBA
2/17;Stephen F. Austin;7 p.m.
2/27;Abilene Christian;7 p.m.
3/3;Southeastern Louisiana;7 p.m.
3/6;at Northwestern State;TBA
Southland Conference Tournament
3/8-14;Southland Conference;Katy, Texas
*Justin Reed Ole Miss Classic at Oxford, Miss;