It's an annual challenge, one that has far too often gotten the better of Arkansas' players and coaches.
Head coach Tom Collen has, however, a lot of reasons to be optimistic as the 2013 conference wars begin. A season ago Arkansas went 10-6 in league play, good for a 5th place finish and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
In the College Station (Texas) Regional, the Razorbacks beat Dayton before falling to Texas A&M, the defending national champions, 61-59.
"If we had started this season ranked, we'd probably be in the top 10 right now," Collen told reporters the day after his team had cracked the Top 25 for the first time in almost two years.
So with the bulk of an NCAA Tournament team returning, why wasn't Arkansas ranked from the start?
Simply put, 10 seasons after former Arkansas and now Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair left Fayetteville for College Station, Arkansas is still trying to establish itself as a Top 25 program in the women's game. The 2012 season helped, but it will take more convincing.
The Razorbacks' struggles against 4-7 Coppin State last Friday night illustrated some of the problems Collen is still dealing with. The visitors jumped out to a 15-11 lead, taking advantage of lazy passes, lackluster rebounding and poor 3 point shooting by Arkansas.
"I tried to tell them it could happen," Collen recalled. "I didn't want to see it happen but it did. It was hard to watch from a coaching standpoint. You don't like it when your kids don't play at their top level."
Arkansas recovered, scoring 14 unanswered points to lead 32-23 at halftime. In the dressing room, Collen honed in on one first half problem in particular. The Razorbacks were just 1-13 from behind the arc.
"We weren't shooting very well from the three point line going into halftime and coach kind of emphasized that we needed to start closer to the basket," senior center Sarah Watkins noted. "Once we got into a scoring rhythm, then he said we could could expand our range."
A back and forth battle developed in the second half. An 11-point Arkansas lead dropped to just three with 14:31 left in the game. The Razorbacks built it back to nine on a free throw by Calli Berna with 10:31 to go, but Coppin State went on a 13-6 run over the next four minutes, cutting the lead to just two points.
"We got a little careless," Collen admitted. "We got a little frustrated. Kept looking at the clock and looking at the score."
Once again the home team surged down the stretch. Arkansas outscored Coppin State 21-9 over the last six minutes of the game to prevail, 71-57.
"We got the win," senior forward Quistelle Williams said afterward. "It was ugly, but we got it."
"We were ready to play," Miles countered when asked if Arkansas might have been rusty from a Christmas break, "but they were ready to play too, so it was a tough game."
Collen managed to find a silver lining in his team's struggles. "The team we're getting ready to play in Auburn is a team that's going to press us like Coppin State did. They're a team that's going to play zone like they did, so I think it gives me the opportunity to get those kids' attention."
Arkansas enters SEC play tied with Georgia and South Carolina for the league's best non-conference record at 12-1. Kentucky is a game back with Auburn a game and a half off the pace.
It all changes Thursday night when 12 of the league's 14 teams begin butting heads. Non conference play is window dressing. The SEC is the real deal.
Auburn is likely to be unimpressed with Arkansas' nine-game winning streak, since the Tigers will start off with an eight-game string of their own.
Tip off for Arkansas vs. Auburn is set for six o'clock Thursday night at Auburn.
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