By Riley Zayas, The Scoop on D3 Women’s Hoops
Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023
It was early April, and ETBU head coach Blake Arbogast and his staff found themselves at the 2023 Women’s Final Four in Dallas. LSU stole the show in Sunday’s championship game, taking down Iowa for the D-I national title on Sunday afternoon, winning under the direction of second-year head coach Kim Mulkey.
Of the eight teams in attendance–four from the D-I ranks, and two from the D-II and D-III ranks (the D-II and D-III championship games were played at the D-I Final Four in a unique setup)–LSU was the closest in proximity to the Lone Star State. After all, Baton Rouge sits just four hours and 20 minutes from Marshall, Texas, the home of ETBU.
At this point in the spring, Arbogast and his staff had struck out in pretty much all of their original queries for D-I opponents for the 2023-24 schedule, from Stephen F. Austin to Lamar, due to a variety of factors. Throughout his three-year tenure in Marshall, Arbogast had made it a point to get at least one D-I opponent on the schedule each season, giving his team a unique opportunity to face stiff competition and get the “D-I experience” in an early season exhibition.
So he decided to take a shot at getting the reigning national champions on the slate.
“Me and my staff were out at the Final Four, enjoying it, and LSU wins,” Arbogast said. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to see if they [have a date available for an exhibition].’ So I sent Mulkey an email. I didn’t think much of it.”
It was several weeks before a response found its way into his inbox. He was doubtful initially, as the days turned into weeks. But a reply from Baton Rouge came through, sure enough.
“A couple weeks go by and I originally thought, ‘Oh well, you have to shoot your shot. That’s alright.’ And then on my anniversary with my wife, I got an email from one of Mulkey’s assistants who handles scheduling, saying that they had October 26th open, asking if we could make that work.
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and then called my assistant and said, ‘Hey, clear October 26th. Clear whatever we had that day…because we’re going to LSU.’”
The high-level scheduling was initially met with a hint of surprise when Arbogast first mentioned it to his team. After all, per research done by ETBU’s Sports Information Department, this marks the first time in women’s college basketball history dating back to 2000 that a D-III team has faced the reigning D-I national champ to begin the season.
LSU is undoubtedly the biggest brand in women’s college basketball currently, as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, led by a recognizable figure in Mulkey, who previously led the program at Baylor for 21 seasons. And then there’s the roster LSU has put together, with three of the Top 5 NIL earners in women’s college hoops per On3.com. That would be Angel Reese (No. 1), Flau’jae Johnson (No. 2), and Hailey Van Lith, a transfer from Louisville (No. 5). Van Lith was a key contributor to the USA 3-on-3 Women’s National Team that won gold at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup this past summer, and Reese was part of the USA Women’s National Team that finished as runners-up in the FIBA AmeriCup in July.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Arbogast added. “LSU had players who were representing our country this past summer and brought home medals and hardware as the best in the world. So it’s a great opportunity, not only for ETBU and our girls, but for D-III women’s basketball, truthfully.”
That isn’t to say putting together the scouting report has been easy. Not when you’re prepping for the nation’s top-ranked team, with a very experienced roster, who will be playing on its home court for the first time since winning it all in April. But that is a challenge Arbogast and his staff have embraced. If anything, it’s good practice considering three of ETBU’s first four non-conference opponents in the regular season are likely Top 25 teams (Trinity (TX), Elizabethtown, Christopher Newport).
“We’re excited. It’s honestly tricky when we’re doing a scouting report on the best of the best, since you’re trying to find flaws and things like that. So it’s been fun from a coaching perspective too. We’re going to go in there and try to represent the university, ourselves, and D-III the best we can.”
For the players on the ETBU roster, it is a similar feeling of excitement. In several cases, it is an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with players they have been watching on national television for years, and a team that played in front of 20,000 in an NBA arena just over six months ago.
“One of our transfers is actually from Louisiana, and idolizes Hailey Van Lith,” Arbogast said. “So she’s excited to be on the same floor as her. And we have a post player, who, for all of last year, couldn’t stop talking about Angel Reese. So I’m like, ‘Alright, well here you go.’”
When it comes to getting the nation’s No. 1 D-I team on the schedule for a preseason exhibition, or traveling to the home court of last year’s D-III national runner-up, ETBU has not shied away from difficult matchups early in the season. Much of that is a credit to the administration, Arbogast said, who have supported his program well and provided it with opportunities to go up against the best.
“Our administration is great. During that Covid year, they really understood that over 50 percent of our student population is athletes so they let us, within reason, get a full 25-game schedule. We were one of the few able to do that. So our administration does a great job at supporting athletics and having the best chance available and the best experience.
“At the end of the day, you have to play the best to see where you’re at. With the way our conference is, UT-Dallas was the No. 4 seed [in last year’s ASC Tournament] and they go win the tournament. Hardin-Simmons needed to have a good enough strength-of-schedule and resume [to get into the NCAA Tournament]. So it’s good for us to play these teams early.”