Now is not the time to get caught looking ahead if you are the Arkansas Tech basketball teams.
The nationally top-ranked Wonder Boys (23-0 overall, 10-0 Gulf South Conference) and the nationally fifth-ranked Golden Suns (22-1, 9-1) will host Ouachita Baptist for a GSC doubleheader at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
The ticket office and doors to the coliseum will open at 4:30 p.m. Those with a valid Tech identification card will be admitted free of charge.
The twin bill against OBU comes less than 48 hours before what could be the doubleheader of the year on Saturday.
Tech will visit Delta State at 4 and 6 p.m. Saturday, and those two games will go a long way toward deciding the 2009-10 GSC West Division titles in both men’s and women’s basketball.
The Wonder Boys enter Thursday with a two-game lead over the Delta State Statesmen in the GSC West men’s standings, while the Golden Suns hold a one-game lead over the nationally 12th-ranked Delta State Lady Statesmen in the GSC West women’s race.
There are just four games remaining in the regular season.
Arkansas Tech has never won a GSC West title in men’s basketball, and it has been seven years since the Golden Suns won the GSC West.
Combine that backdrop with the fact that Ouachita Baptist’s teams are long shots at best to qualify for the GSC Tournament, and it becomes apparent why it would be easy for Arkansas Tech’s thoughts to drift toward those showdowns at Walter Sillers Coliseum in Cleveland, Miss.
It’s pretty clear that some at Delta State --- which visits Southern Arkansas on Thursday --- are already thinking about Saturday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there was an advertisement for the Tech-DSU games on the Delta State Athletic Department Web site with the headline “PAYBACK.”
Tech swept Delta State in Russellville on Jan. 23.
And while fans on both sides of the Tech-DSU rivalry are already looking forward to the rematches, it is the task of Wonder Boys head coach Mark Downey and Golden Suns head coach Dave Wilbers to make sure their teams are focused on Ouachita Baptist.
“Anytime you are in a conference race, every game is important,” said Wilbers. “All we really have to do is put on our tape of the last game against OBU. They’re the same team and the same players that went to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year. They’ve been playing everybody tough, and they’re hard to prepare for. We haven’t looked ahead one bit to Delta State --- haven’t even mentioned it to our players.”
“There are so many different things we are playing for,” said Downey. “Every game is big, and it doesn’t really matter that we haven’t lost. When you’re in a conference race and trying to get a seed in a tournament, it’s not as much about whom you beat as how many people you beat. You’ve just got to keep winning games one at a time.”
The Wonder Boys have an opportunity on Thursday to match the best start in the 95-year history of Arkansas Tech basketball.
Tech’s only 24-0 start came in 1952-53, when the Wonder Boys won all 23 of their regular season games and their first-round game at the 1953 NAIA National Tournament before Indiana State ended their dream season.
Fifty-seven years later, it has been another dream season for Tech men’s basketball. It continued last Saturday night with what Downey called his team’s best 40-minute performance of the season in a 95-64 win over Harding.
Ouachita Baptist (6-17 overall, 2-8 GSC) is destined to miss the GSC Tournament in men’s basketball for a second consecutive year.
The Tigers proved they are still feisty when they beat defending NCAA Division II South Region champion Christian Brothers 59-54 on Feb. 11.
And OBU gave the Wonder Boys fits in Arkadelphia on Jan. 21 before Willie Sanders sparked a 21-5 second-half run that led to a 74-65 Tech victory.
“After watching the tape of that game, we had some good spurts,” said Downey of the Wonder Boys’ first meeting with the Tigers. “We didn’t do a very good job of finishing plays and making decisions. That was all a part of being the aggressor and being the team that wanted to dictate the pace. We’ve talked about doing those things all week, so hopefully that will resonate with our guys and they’ll come out and do it.”
Like many inexperienced teams before them, these Ouachita Tigers have been unable to solve the puzzle of playing on the road. OBU is 0-10 away from the friendly confines of Bill Vining Arena.
If Arkansas Tech shoots 3-pointers on Thursday night like it did against Harding last Saturday night, the Tigers are a likely candidate to fall to 0-11 on the road.
The Wonder Boys were 13-of-26 (50 percent) for the game, but even more impressive was the fact that they were 11-of-14 (79 percent) from the 1:44 mark of the first half through the end of the game.
Arkansas Tech’s women are threatening to end Delta State’s four-year run atop the GSC West Division. At the beginning of the season, it was Ouachita Baptist that was picked by league coaches as the team with the best chance to topple the Lady Statesmen.
OBU was picked to finish second in the GSC West this women’s basketball season, and no league coach picked the Lady Tigers to finish lower than third in the GSC West after they reached the NCAA Division II Tournament regional finals a year ago.
Preseason polls can’t consider injuries, though. Ouachita (11-12, 3-7) has seen its top two post players --- Tamara Robinson and Angela Colliver --- miss a combined 11 games since Jan. 14.
Those injuries have made an already perimeter-oriented Lady Tigers team even more reliant on the 3-pointer, and not enough of those have gone in for Ouachita. OBU is 13th in the GSC and 221st in NCAA Division II in 3-point field goal percentage (.283).
The hot-and-cold nature of the Lady Tigers’ outside shooting was never demonstrated better than in their first match-up against Arkansas Tech.
Ouachita made 9-of-18 (50 percent) 3-pointers over the first 20 minutes, but it was just 3-of-23 (13 percent) from beyond the arc in the second half as the Golden Suns escaped Arkadelphia with a 78-74 victory.
The Lady Tigers might not be forced into so many 3-point tries against Tech this time around because of the return of Colliver. She has averaged 12.5 points per game in OBU’s last two outings.
“(Colliver) has size, she shoots the ball well from the high post and she can go down low with a lot of offensive moves,” said Wilbers. “She also gives them a defensive presence. We had an advantage in the post against (OBU) last time, but Colliver balances things out a little more. They do a good job of giving her the basketball and then working off her. She makes them a better team.”
Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM and www.athletics.atu.edu will have live play-by-play coverage of the Tech-OBU games on Thursday and the Tech-DSU games on Saturday.