Hoop Dreams: UALR looks east for a new home

It didn’t come as a surprise when the news came Wednesday that the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was leaving the Sun Belt Conference for the Ohio Valley.

  • Watch the press conference by clicking here. It is scheduled to start at 2:45 p.m., today, Thursday.

It was pretty clear UALR – old habits die hard – Little Rock would be looking for a new place to play sooner rather than later as the Sun Belt seems more concerned with chasing football glory, whatever that is, then focusing on all sports

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Some of it is the ongoing pandemic. Covid is realigning college sports in a way that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Oklahoma in the SEC? Sure. Why not?

Schools, big and small, are looking to maximize television dollars as much as possible because ticket revenue is declining and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

It is a vicious circle for college athletics. It used to be, if you wanted to see your team play, you had to go. That isn’t the case anymore.

Every game is televised. And when the game is on TV, are you going to drive across town, or hours away, to watch a game that you can watch in your living room?

Next time you watch a game, check out the crowds. You’ll see the empty seats. It doesn’t matter the program, people aren’t going because they’ll watch the broadcast, which means schools need to increase the revenue because butts in the seats money is falling and more games on the screen mean fewer fans and the slow spiral down continues.

So, back to Little Rock and its move to the OVC.

In college, my journalism professor Ernie Dumas would say, find an expert, ask good questions, and write down what they say. Luckily, I happen to know a national college basketball writer who covers that conference and can explain in great detail the move for the Trojans

First, let’s plug his work, you can buy a copy of Lindy’s College Basketball at newsstands now. An annual publication, Lindy’s covers the world of college basketball in 200-plus pages and takes a look at every Division I conference.

So, without further adieu, let me introduce … me.

Yes, me. I’ve been writing college basketball for Lindy’s for more than 15 years and have previously written about hoops for The Associated Press, USA Today, ESPN and many other publications, both large and small.

First, going to the OVC is good for Little Rock. In my mind, Division I basketball is sorted into three categories:

  • High-Major

  • Mid-Major

  • Low-Major

The first is what you think of when you think powerhouse. Teams that regularly make the Sweet 16 and considered NCAA Tournament contenders before the season starts and get five or more teams in March Madness. Mid-Major are the programs you recognize when you go to pick your bracket and get multiple teams in. A pretty consistent two to four-bid league.

Low-major, and there’s where most conferences live, are leagues that get an automatic bid and that’s it. That’s where the Sun Belt is currently and that’s also where the OVC is but they also happen to be top low-major conference in the country and its very best teams – Murray State, Belmont – are perennial NCAA Tournament teams and have produced players the likes of Ja Morant, one of the NBA’s best young players for the Memphis Grizzlies. The OVC is also where Nick Smith Sr., father of North Little Rock star Nick Smith Jr., played his college basketball when he was at Jacksonville State and I wrote about him in the mid-2000s.

Belmont is leaving though. The Bruins are headed to the Missouri Valley Conference but Murray State is still there and the Racers are, as always, very good. Former Little Rock Christian standout Justice Hill is one of their better players this season. Other connections abound. Former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey is currently running the program at Tennessee Tech and Dickey Nutt, brother to Houston, formerly coached at Southeast Missouri after he left Arkansas State.

Little Rock also won’t be the only basketball only school as Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, in the St. Louis suburbs and it also doesn’t play football. Geography-wise, Little Rock is on the western edge for the league, but more expansion seems likely for the OVC as several high-profile Division II programs are considered making the move up. There’s at least a couple in the OVC’s footprint. So stay tuned.