PINE BLUFF, Ark. – When Allen Smith was growing up, he used to go watch basketball at his local college, but the less said about those Arkansas-Pine Bluff teams, the better.
“I used to go to sleep at the games, actually. I was a little kid,” Smith said. “They were getting blown out by 80 points and all that. It was rough.”
Now, Smith is preparing to play for UAPB in the NCAA tournament.
The Golden Lions will take on Winthrop in the tournament’s first game tonight, with the winner advancing to play top-seeded Duke. UAPB earned the program’s first NCAA bid by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, and the players were decked out in championship hats and shirts Sunday while watching the selection show in a cramped lounge near the school’s football field.
“I’ve always wanted to play Duke, but I wanted to play Duke at Duke, just to see how the atmosphere was. I’ll take it how I can get it,” said Smith, a 5-foot-10 junior. “It’s going to be great. We’ve just got to get past this play-in game first. That’s the first thing on the agenda. Beat Winthrop.”
No matter what happens Tuesday, UAPB has traveled quite a road to reach this point. As recently as 2003-04, the Golden Lions went 1-26. This season, they didn’t play a home game until mid-January and started 0-11.
In the SWAC, however, the Golden Lions were contenders. They earned the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, beat fifth-seeded Texas Southern in the title game, and entered the NCAA tournament with a 17-15 record.
“This is as big as it gets for our community, our alumni and our students,” athletic director Skip Perkins said. “I’m still a little numb right now. The turnaround is remarkable. It wasn’t even over 10 years ago we were barely winning one or two games at all.”
UAPB improved from those depths, losing in the SWAC tournament title game in 2006 under coach Van Holt. George Ivory took over as coach before the 2008-09 season.
For Perkins, this tournament bid is a bit of vindication after the grueling schedule the school set up for the team. The Golden Lions opened the season with 14 consecutive games away from home, earning an estimated $800,000 for their trouble. At the time, Perkins insisted the schedule wasn’t all about money, saying Ivory wanted to test his team before conference play.
So UAPB played and lost to teams like Georgia Tech, Missouri and Kansas State.
“It helped make us a better team. It made us more physical,” guard Terrance Calvin said. “I think we were the most physical team in our conference.”
There were some groans Sunday after Kansas State was matched up with North Texas; the UAPB players apparently wanted a rematch. Instead, the Golden Lions will have to win Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, just to make it to the round of 64.
“I thought we were going to get an automatic bid into it without a play-in game, but we’ve got to go through Winthrop to get to Duke,” Calvin said. “We’ve just got to do what we’ve got to do.”
Calvin was still wearing part of the net from Saturday night in his hat, a sign the players and coaches were savoring every moment of their big weekend.
“It’s been kind of hectic. You know, a lot of phone calls, text messages, interviews,” Ivory said. “We love it.”