Arkansas-Pine Bluff started writing the storylines for tonight’s SWAC men’s basketball opener against Mississippi Valley State 10 months ago.
On March 1, UAPB ended Valley’s bid for an undefeated conference season with a 78-67 victory at H.O. Clemmons Arena. On March 9, the Delta Devils returned the favor in the SWAC tournament semifinals with a 71-64 win, capping the Golden Lions’ season and going on to win the title.
You’d think that would be enough to set the stage for this latest edition of a heated cross-Delta rivalry — not to mention that it’s UAPB’s home opener.
“It’s the first conference game, and they’re (Valley) going to be pumped up,” Lions coach George Ivory said. “We were the last team to beat them in the regular season, and I think it’s becoming a rivalry between us and Valley, which is good for both schools.”
But there’s more.
In June, Ivory considered accepting the same position at Valley, a month after his old Delta Devils teammate Nate Kilbert made the move from coaching the Devilettes to the Lady Lions. That was shortly before the NCAA handed down postseason bans against both Valley’s and UAPB’s men’s teams for low Academic Progress Rates.
That eventful month has added to the rivalry, which starts a three-game homestand for UAPB (1-11). And Ivory’s ready to face the program that pursued him.
“Our guys’ mindset is, they haven’t been home to play in so long, they’re excited about it,” Ivory said. “I think with me not going to Valley, when I turned it down, it’s because I enjoy the fanfare here. I enjoy the fans, you look at our faculty and staff that work with us and our kids academically, and it’s just a great atmosphere here. I really love it.”
His fifth season at UAPB so far has been anything but great. The Lions have lost nine straight and struggle in many statistical categories.
It has not helped that the Lions have been without key players at times. They’ve been depleted in the low post as injuries hindered Terrell Kennedy and Daniel Broughton, and Austin Allen hasn’t played at all this season due to academic reasons. Ivory said he’s waiting on a grade from one of Allen’s courses to determine his eligibility.
Kennedy will play his first game tonight since injuring his foot at Washington State on Nov. 24. Broughton is expected to make his fifth appearance of the season, but his minutes may continue to be limited as he strengthens his injured knee from surgery.
“When he came back the first time from the knee surgery, we didn’t think it was strong enough,” Ivory said. “He wasn’t getting any mobility in his jumping ability. We decided to tell him to strengthen that leg more because if that leg isn’t strong, he can’t perform to his ability.”
Guard Marcel Mosley, who missed all of last season with a shin injury, has given the Lions a scoring boost in his three games back from being held out along with Allen for similar academic reasons. Mosley is fourth on the team with 8.3 points and has made five steals on the season.
“Marcel’s a very explosive player,” Ivory said. “He’s getting a lot better on defense. He brings a lot to the table for us. He’s the guy that we were missing that will sometimes go get a basket. He’s that type of player. He’s very exciting to watch.”
Tonight’s game will pit two of the worst scoring offenses in the country against each other. Valley (0-9), which like UAPB has not played a home game before tonight, ranked 340th out of 345 NCAA Division I teams with an average of 53.8 points through Dec. 22. That’s only three places ahead of UAPB’s 52.3 at the time.
(Valley now has a 54.5-51.9 edge, but national statistics were not updated as of Monday.)
Under first-year coach Chico Potts, the Delta Devils have been knocking on the door trying to break into the win column, losing to Cal State-Bakersfield and TCU by a combined eight points the past two outings. Bakersfield, a former Division II powerhouse, ironically had its postseason ban overturned.
Davon Usher, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, leads the Devils with 16.0 points per game.
UAPB’s homestand will continue Sunday against Alabama State, a team it defeated in overtime of the SWAC first round last March, and next Tuesday against Alabama A&M, which is coming off a 59-57 win at Mississippi State.
Mississippi Valley State at UAPB
• First conference games of season for both schools
• When: Today, women’s game at 5 p.m.; men’s at 7 p.m.
• Where: H.O. Clemmons Arena
• Records: Valley women 3-6, UAPB women 4-6; Valley men 0-9, UAPB men 1-11
• Last meetings: Women, Valley 65, UAPB 47, at Pine Bluff on March 1; men, Valley 71, UAPB 64, in SWAC semifinal on March 9