MONTICELLO — This season the Arkansas-Monticello men’s basketball team will face its most challenging nonconference schedule since Allen Sharpe became head coach.
The fourth-year head man is hoping the tough schedule will help the Boll Weevils achieve one of their main goals in reaching the NCAA Division II tournament.
“The schedule is going to be quite a challenge,” Sharpe said. “… This schedule will give us a chance (to reach the NCAA tourney).
“Eckerd (Fla.), Florida Southern and Angelo State (Texas) all made the NCAA tourney last year and Maryville out of Missouri won 20-something games last year. Now, we are going to need to beat some of them. You can’t just lose all of them and expect to get in. So we are going to have to step up to it.”
Sharpe said a soft nonconference schedule is what kept his 2011-12 team that went 21-9 from getting an at-large bid to the tournament.
Last season, UAM finished 16-11 with an 11-9 mark in Great American Conference play. On Oct. 22, the Boll Weevils were picked to finish fourth in the GAC, behind Arkansas Tech, Harding and Southeastern Oklahoma State, respectively.
If UAM is to get over the hump and into the NCAA tournament this time around, the Weevils will have to do it without last season’s GAC Player of the Year in graduated guard Kori Forge.
The Atlanta native averaged a league-high 19.7 points per game, while also leading the Weevils with 2.56 assists per contest and finishing second on the squad with 1.63 steals per game.
Forge is far from the only player missing from last year’s team. According to Sharpe, this year’s squad has just four returning players and 10 newcomers — two from high school and eight transfers from junior college or another four-year school. However, UAM does bring back two of its top three scorers in senior forwards Dayton Mickens and Brandon Sims.
“It’s a challenge,” Sharpe said of getting the players to mesh. “But it’s something we’re used to here. …
“You can’t rush it; you must be patient.”
Based on their new personnel, Sharpe said UAM will focus on their inside players to shoulder the offensive load.
“We’re going to be very inside-oriented,” Sharpe said. “Our greatest strength will be inside.
“We still have some capable three-point shooters but most of our shots should come down low, so our field goal percentage should be really good.”
It will be quite a contrast from last season when over one-third of UAM’s shots came from behind the arc.
“It’s going to be a pretty big change,” Sharpe said. “Last year, we had a couple of pretty really good guards, including conference player of the year Kori Forge.
“So this year will be a drastic change, really, and I’m OK with that. Our shot selection should be better and our field goal percentage should be a lot better.”
The Weevils will open the season next weekend in the Delta State Regional Crossover tournament in Cleveland, Miss. UAM will take on Eckerd Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Florida Southern Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The Weevils’ first home game is against Champion Baptist on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 2 p.m. UAM then kicks off its 20-game GAC schedule with a home game against Southwestern Oklahoma State on Thursday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m.
The Weevils aren’t waiting for the Eckerd game to get things going, though. UAM participated in a scrimmage with Mississippi Delta Community College on Oct. 25, and Sharpe really got to see how well his team was coming together when they faced Division I Louisiana Tech in an exhibition game Wednesday in Ruston, La.
“I think it was good,” Sharpe said of his team’s 85-64 loss to the Bulldogs, who return nine of their top 10 scorers from last year’s 27-7 squad. “You have to be careful when you schedule Division I teams.
“You don’t want it to be demoralizing. You want to compete. You don’t want to walk out after the game thinking, ‘Man, we stink.’
“Thankfully, that didn’t happen. So, yeah, it was good. We really found out some things about our team.”
UAM struggled in the first half making only 28 percent of its shots, but still only trailed 43-28 at the break against last season’s Western Athletic Conference regular season co-champions.
The Weevils responded well in the second half shooting a blistering 61 percent to finish the night a respectable 43 percent from the field.
“We were getting whipped pretty good there in the first half,” Sharpe said. “But we came out really well after halftime and cut it to eight at one point.
“Even though, we didn’t get any closer we still competed and played with them. They are really, really good. I mean, they won the WAC last year, so overall it was very encouraging.
UAM’s post players were able to show a glimpse of their potential. Senior Brandon Wilson scored 19 points and had eight rebounds, while junior D’Audrio Patton recorded a double-double with 17 points and 10 points. Wilson’s 19 points tied him with Tech’s Raheem Appleby — the Bulldogs’ leading scorer from last season — for the game-high.
Sharpe said he was impressed with the way Wilson and Patton played and expected them to push Mickens and Sims for playing time.
With the Weevils opening the season next weekend, Sharpe said the main agenda is finding a lineup and a rotation for his team. Sharpe said he usually only plays seven or eight men, so the competition could be fierce.
One position Sharpe is hoping to nail down soon is the point guard spot.
“It’s a very crucial position,” Sharpe said. “He’s got to be my guy.
“When he’s out there he’s got to be thinking the same thing I’m thinking.”
The biggest thing Sharpe’s new point guard must do is help implement the team philosophy of pounding the ball inside.
“We have to understand that our strength is in the paint,” Sharpe said. “It gives us the best chance to get us a basket.
“It should be almost like old-man church league basketball. Guard passes to wing, wing passes to post and post shoots and scores.”
men’s basketball schedule
Delta State Regional Crossover at Cleveland, Miss.
• Nov. 9, vs. Eckerd (Fla.)
• Nov. 10, vs. Florida Southern
Nov. 16, Champion Baptist, home
Nov. 23, Northwestern Oklahoma State, home
Nov. 26, Maryville (Mo.), home
Dec. 5, Henderson State, away
Dec. 7, Ouachita Baptist, away
Dec. 14, Central Baptist, home
Dec. 17, Philander Smith, home
Dec. 21, Angelo State (Texas), home
Jan. 2, East Central (Okla.), home
Jan. 4, Southeastern Oklahoma State, home
Jan. 9, Southern Nazarene, away
Jan. 11, Ecclesia, home
Jan. 16, Arkansas Tech, away
Jan. 18, Harding, home
Jan. 23, Southern Arkansas, away
Jan. 25, Henderson State, home
Jan. 30, Northwestern Oklahoma State, away
Feb. 1, Southwestern Oklahoma State, away
Feb. 6, Southeastern Oklahoma State, away
Feb. 8, East Central, away
Feb. 15, Southern Nazarene, home
Feb. 20, Arkansas Tech, home
Feb. 22, Harding, away
Feb. 27, Southern Arkansas, home
March 1, Ouachita Baptist, home
Great American Conference championship tournament
• March 6-9, in Bartlesville, Okla.