As November approaches, college basketball coaches are scrambling to put their nonconference schedules together. And the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas State University and University of Central Arkansas are no stranger to this.
All three have recently announced intentions to play in bubble tournaments. UALR will play in a tournament hosted by Louisville, while ASU and UCA will play at Ole Miss. With the NCAA pushing college basketball's start date back to Nov. 25, it has left teams searching for replacement nonconference games and trying to land in tournaments to make up for lost games.
"It's been a big challenge especially for us in the Sun Belt to get games with Power 5 conferences," said ASU men's Coach Mike Balado. "So we had to get very creative as far as doing the non-conference. You're cramming in games, but you also want to be able to play the most you can for your players too. So, it's been a struggle. You have to get very innovative with where you're playing and then you throw in the travel factor -- our administrations don't want us traveling long distances.
"So, even though teams are available to play, the logistics and the geography don't fit. It's become a very difficult time for us to at least get the games that we need to get."
Arkansas State and UCA will play each other on Nov. 25 in the Ole Miss tournament, while also facing the Rebels and Jackson State over Thanksgiving break.
Meanwhile, UALR will play in Louisville's tournament, which will consist of 8-12 teams, including Duquesne, UNC-Greensboro and Winthrop. UALR Coach Darrell Walker is excited for the opportunity to play in a high-caliber tournament that will prepare his team for conference play.
"We need to play some games. It's the perfect tournament to be in because it'll be in a bubble," Walker said. "I think it's important that you go play good teams. I've always tried to get my team prepared for the gauntlet of the Sun Belt Conference. Going out and playing a good schedule and get in this tournament -- you get the chance to judge your basketball team there, see where your team is and what you need to work on."
UALR and Walker will be looking to defend their regular season Sun Belt title this season, which will start Dec. 31 at Texas State. The Trojans went 15-5 in the Sun Belt last season
"The first part of the schedule is going to be pretty tough because the first seven games we play, five are on the road," Walker said. "So it's going to be tough in the beginning, but if you're going to win this conference, you've got to win games on the road. And teams are going to be hunting for us and that means you're pretty good basketball team. My thing is to not let my team get complacent."
UALR, ASU and UCA's full nonconference schedules will be released over the next few weeks.
But for now, they're focused only on what they can control.
"It's been difficult," Walker said. "It's been tough, but my staff has done a great job of putting together a really good schedule, it's a very competitive schedule and it gets us ready for the Sun Belt, which is my biggest concern."