The arena scoreboard blared, the court cleared, and Jordan Howard walked toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
The scoreboard read "Sam Houston State 77, Central Arkansas 69" at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, signaling the March 8 loss in the Bears' brief return to the men's Southland Conference Tournament for the second time in school history.
UCA men’s schedule
Nov. 10;at Baylor;Noon
Nov. 12;University of the Ozarks;4 p.m.
Nov. 15;at UCLA;10 p.m.
Nov. 19;Alcorn State;1 p.m.
Nov. 21;at South Carolina State;TBA
Nov. 25;at Tulsa;TBA
Nov. 27;Morehead State;7 p.m.
Nov. 29;at UALR;6:30 p.m.
Dec. 4;at San Francisco;9 p.m.
Dec. 6;at California;9 p.m.
Dec. 9;UALR;7 p.m.
Dec. 17;at Morehead State;TBA
Dec. 20;at Oregon;10 p.m.
Dec. 28;Texas A&M-Corpus Christi*;7 p.m.
Dec. 31;Southeastern Louisiana*;3 p.m.
Jan. 3;at Sam Houston State*;6:30 p.m.
Jan. 6;at Lamar*;4:30 p.m.
Jan. 10;Incarnate Word*;7 p.m.
Jan. 13;at Nicholls State*;TBA
Jan. 17;at New Orleans*;7 p.m.
Jan. 20;Abilene Christian*;3 p.m.
Jan. 24;Stephen F. Austin*;7 p.m.
Jan. 27;at Northwestern State*;3 p.m.
Feb. 3;at Southeastern Louisiana*;5 p.m.
Feb. 7;at Houston Baptist*;7 p.m.
Feb. 14;McNeese State*;7 p.m.
Feb. 17;Nicholls State*;3 p.m.
Feb. 21;at Stephen F. Austin*;7 p.m.
Feb. 24;at Abilene Christian*;4 p.m.
Feb. 28;Sam Houston State*;7 p.m.
March 3;Northwestern State*;3 p.m.
UCA 2017-18 men’s basketball roster
0;SK Shittu;PF;Fr.;6-9;209;Rogers;Providence Academy
1;Jordan Howard;PG;Sr.;5-11;180;Chandler, Ariz.;Perry High
2;Ethan Lee;F;Sr.;6-6;205;Camden;Camden Fairview High
3;Tyler Simmons;G;Jr.;6-2;175;Greenbrier;Greenbrier High
10;Mathieu Kamba;G;Sr.;6-5;210;Calgary, Alberta, Canada;Bishop McNally High
12;Darraja Parnell;G;So.;6-4;195;Andover, Kan.;Central High
13;Otas Iyekekpolor;F;Jr.;6-8;220;Edmonton, Canada;Lillian Osborne High
15;Hayden Koval;C;Fr.;7-0;210;Prosper, Texas;Link Year Prep
20;Matthew Mondesir;G;Fr.;6-5;200;Los Angeles, Calif.;Link Year Prep
22;Tanner Schmit;F/C;Jr.;6-8;220;Buffalo, N.Y.;Nichols School
23;Aron Weidenaar;F;So.;6-7;205;Bozeman, Mont.;Bozeman High
24;Jared Chatham;F;R-Fr.;6-8;185;Los Angeles, Calif.;George Washington Prep
25;Thatch Unruh;SG;Jr.;6-5;190;Branson, Mo.;Quakerdale Prep
33;Jordan Grant;G;So.;6-1;185;Harrison;Harrison High
35;Brandon Vanover;C;R-Fr.;7-0;250;Little Rock;Arkansas Baptist High
55;Deandre Jones;PG;Fr.;5-11;160;Boise, Idaho;Link Year Prep
The University of Central Arkansas finished last season 8-24 -- one victory shy of tying the total of the previous two seasons, when the program was serving a two-year postseason ban for not meeting the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate requirements.
Howard, now a senior point guard, remembers that tournament appearance as a ray of hope that pierced through the team's shrouding struggles.
"We could see that we could play with anyone in our conference," said Howard, UCA's all-time leader in made three-pointers (273). "For the guys coming back, it's something we won't forget. Something we'll set goals for. Pour into the younger guys, so we can take advantage of what's in front of us.
"After losing that game, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Howard knew he was stepping into a mess when he committed to UCA out of Perry High (Ariz.) in 2014.
Newly hired Coach Russ Pennell was honest about the program's situation when he recruited Howard.
In the fifth grade, Howard had played for Pennell's AAU team -- Arizona Premier -- and his father, Chuck, was Pennell's strength and conditioning coach at Grand Canyon University from 2009-2013.
"Definitely had some long talks about it," said Howard, who was named to the Southland's preseason first team. "To come here and have an opportunity immediately was something I wanted to do. Also turning it around. To do something that hasn't been done here. I trusted [Pennell], and I knew it would be a struggle."
When Howard arrived in Conway, Pennell declared a "four-to-five year plan" to bring UCA back to competitiveness.
This is Year Four.
"This is the year I hope we move to the upper echelon of the league," Pennell said. "Maybe even win it."
UCA won its exhibition 85-67 over Southwest Baptist on Oct. 25, when five players scored more than 10 points.
The spread showcased Pennell's newfound depth.
"You can rest people now," he said. "Our top guys averaged 35 minutes-plus. That won't happen anymore."
Pennell called senior guard Mathieu Kamba "the mannequin in Dick's Sporting Goods" for his 6-5, 210-pound build.
Kamba (13.8 points per game) finished the exhibition with a slam dunk, and freshman guard Deandre Jones had 10 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
Pennell said 7-0, 210-pound freshman center Hayden Koval "is going to shock everyone."
The Bears were picked to finish 11th in the Southland's preseason poll, but a surprise run to a Southland tournament title would give the program its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"Somebody's going to be the first," Pennell said. "Somebody's going to do it for the first time, and that's what appealed to me."
Sports on 11/02/2017
Print Headline: Pennell looks to accelerate 5-year plan a season early