The UCA Bears (10-4, 3-1 GSC West) have been one of Harding’s (9-4, 1-2) fiercest rivals, in a big-brother, little-brother sort of way, since UCA has always been a much bigger school. Next year, the big brother moves away to the big city and the D-I Southland Conference for basketball, leaving the GSC West behind. I don’t know if the already-packed GSC plans to take on another school as a replacement (there will still be 16 schools), but it doesn’t matter because of the history between these two schools. This will likely be the last time the Bears play in Searcy, since D-I schools typically don’t schedule road games against D-II opponents, although there is always the possibility of a matchup in Conway somewhere down the line.
This year, though, these teams are fairly similar. Both teams are without last year’s best players (UCA because of graduations and Harding because of injuries), and both are still trying to figure out where they are going. Recently, UCA has not been playing their best player this year, senior guard Darryl Jones, for some undisclosed reason (perhaps an injury), and Harding will likely be without senior forward Brandon Sims because of a back injury. The Bears haven’t played all that well without Jones (a double-OT win over Arkansas Tech and a loss to Henderson State), so they will be looking to bounce back and improve their 3-1 conference record against a Harding team that is coming of an embarrassing loss at Southern Arkansas.
Guards: Size is the name of the game here, and UCA has a big edge over the Bisons’ undersized perimeter players. Jones is 6’3″, but even if he doesn’t play, the Bears have point guard Joey Cortez at 6’4″, LeMar Phillips at 6’3″, Frederick Campbell at 6’2″, and UConn transfer Chad Wise at 6’4″. These are UCA’s best players, on top of that, and it may take a heroic effort (or less time on the court) from Reggie Bibb, Steven Barnett, Lonnie Smith, and company. Lonnie might find it difficult to get off good shots against this large, tough perimeter defense, so the Bisons will have to work at moving the ball around better than they usually do.
Forwards: UCA doesn’t get a lot of production out of these guys on the offensive end, but again they have the size to give us some trouble defensively. Stephin Booth, Scott Martin, and Brandon Lipsey will play more minutes than usual if Jones is out, but standing between 6’6″ and 6’9″, they’re much larger than Sprewell, Kee, and Andrepont. Again, Kee and Andrepont will have to work hard and not take bad shots (as they have been prone to do lately). Forcing the issue simply will not work against UCA, the toughest defensive team in the league.
Post players: Fernando Johnson has size, like most of the Bears, but he’s not a very refined offensive player. He will have plenty of trouble against the athleticism of Alassane Savadogo and the smart play of Jacob Thies. On the other end, of course, the same applies. The Bisons haven’t had a lot of production out of the post with Matt Hall hurt, and that will continue for the foreseeable future.
Summary: This will probably be a dogfight because of the rivalry and strengths that cancel out strengths. The Bisons are much more refined offensively, despite their recent rut, but the Bears are an excellent defensive team. I expect a very close game, and my guess is that the crowd will be enough of a factor to swing things the Bisons’ way.
Computer prediction: HU 74-71
My prediction: HU 72-70