Being home for the holidays is great for most people, but so is going to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
That’s where the undefeated Arkansas women’s basketball program is this week to play three games in three days in the Paradise Jam, whose games will be streamed by ESPN +.
The Razorbacks (5-0) will begin action Thanksgiving night with a 4:45 p.m. CST game against Northern Arizona (3-2) in the University of the Virgin Islands’ Elridge William Blake Sports and Fitness Center.
“We are going to have a Thanksgiving dinner, it will just be on a beach instead of around an adult table and a kids table,” Neighbors said earlier this week when previewing the event. “A lot of players families are coming with them, Our university was able to make it available for most of the families to be able to go.
“So most of our kids will have family there and those that don’t, we will make them part of our basketball family. We will have a big meal and treat it like we were back home together and just spending time together.”
Arkansas, who is also scheduled to face Clemson (3-1) Friday at 7 p.m. and Kansas State (5-0) Saturday at the same time, is not treating this as a business trip per Neighbors.
“When we go the Virgin Islands, I am not the coach that says ‘you can’t go to the beach’ or ‘you can’t get on a wave runner or ‘you can’t go swim with a sting ray’ or whatever we are going to do.
“If that was the case, we would go someplace that wasn’t tropical. If we are going to go down there, we are going to have fun for a couple of days and then we will get it turned back to business.
“We will definitely experience the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and everything that goes with it and turn out attention to playing when it is time.”
Neighbors admits that is something he decided on earlier in his coaching career.
“We are going to have fun,” Neighbors said. “I made that decision 15 years ago that on trips when we would go someplace tropical and all we would see is a hotel rooms because we were on a business trip. So I said, ‘if we are going to take a business trip, let’s take it somewhere that is not gorgeous and maybe a place people aren’t going to go once in their lifetime.”
Neighbors is happy to having a trio of quality opponents with varying styles.
“Three really different types of opponents,” Neighbors said. “It will be another three games in three day challenge for us.
“It was strategic on our scheduling part with Todd and the way we put these thing together. When you are going to play with a short turnaround, scouting is less valuable because you can’t do as much of it and you can’t go through as many things in practice. So you have to believe and rely on your training. You are going to fall back to that level of training.
“So having had to play against a very diverse style of play and in diverse situations and conditions, we are getting on the plane feeling very confident. I don’t know if that confidence means anything, but I do think that the way we schedule it, the we played, the places that we have played, the turnarounds with which we have played in was designed to get us as prepared as we could be.”
Northern Arizona lost its first two games, but is riding a three-game winning streak with victories over the University of California-San Diego (87-54), California Baptist (110-104 in 2 OTs) and Park University-Gilbert (111-44).
Neighbors promises his team won’t be looking past Thursday’s game.
“All you have to do is look around the country and what happened last week at these events that started right now and there are upsets galore,” Neighbors said. “You have unranked teams knocking off top five teams. It happens every year on the men’s and women’s side.”
It does set up where the two teams regarded as the best in the event are set to play Saturday with a battle between current unbeaten Arkansas and Kansas State.
“Day three of three you are going to be playing on adrenaline anyway so it is probably good that you are playing a team that is is ranked,” Neighbors said.
Neighbors lauded the playing venue, which is named after a legendary sports figure from the Virgin Islands who played baseball, basketball and ran track at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs.
“That is the one thing that sets this apart,” Neighbors said. “…This has got it all. It has an SEC quality, an NCAA Tournament quality setting gym – hard floors, working clocks, monitors. That’s what makes the Paradise Jam one of the Elite events to go too. We were lucky to be able get into it, lucky that our school will play in a tournament like it.
“It also attracts good competition as a result. People want to play in it and their is a waiting list to get into this thing.
“I think over the years we have got a healthy amount of how much fun to have and win to turn it to business. It is one of the premier deals and we are happy to be a part of it. I am exited for our kids because they have really been looking forward to it and doing a lot of planning.”
Neighbors, who took over Arkansas after a Final Four run at at the University of Washington, is familiar with Lumberjack head coach Loree Payne.
“I go way back with Loree Payne,” Neighbors said. “In my time in Seattle, Loree was the head coach at Seattle Pacific right across town. She is a former UW Husky player so I know Lori very well. Obviously she has an up-tempo style. She has really built a cool little niche there and they have a very clear identity of the players they are going to bring in to Northern Arizona.”