If Texas coach Shaka Smart can take the men’s basketball team to China, he’ll take the Longhorns anywhere.
El Paso is just a tad closer than Shanghai, a place that made for a once-in-a-lifetime experience against Washington four years ago. Fort Bliss may be located in the Mountain time zone, but at least it’s still in the Lone Star State.
Texas (1-0) will face Arkansas in the Armed Forces Classic at 6 p.m. Friday at the Army base with roots dating back to 1849.
With about 1,500 square miles of restricted air space, Fort Bliss is where troops do missile and artillery training near the United States and Mexico border.
“I believe this is all our first time (being on a military base),” Texas guard Matt Coleman III said. “First-time experience. I’m just happy to be able to experience something like that. To be able to play a basketball game while doing it just makes it even more fun.”
For years, ESPN has created these made-for-TV matchups with military backdrops. The most memorable is still the Carrier Classic to start the 2011-12 season when Michigan State and North Carolina played on the USS Carl Vinson. Condensation on the court eventually forced organizers to rethink things.
The idea lives on in spirit. These games are meant to honor troops, and coaches for both teams said they were honored to participate.
Renewing this longtime Southwest Conference rivalry makes sense, given the setup and geographic proximity. The Horns and Hogs first played basketball in 1924. The last meeting came in December 2016 at Houston’s Toyota Center.
The Longhorns left Austin on Wednesday, a full day ahead of schedule, just so the players could get extra time meeting with soldiers and military leaders on the base.
“We are so unbelievably fortunate to lead the lives that we lead as basketball players and coaches at the University of Texas,” Smart said. “So, I really want our guys to gain a sense of appreciation for their own situations and their own lives, their own careers.”
There is no traditional arena on the base, as one might imagine. The game will be played in Soto Gym, something akin to a recreational center. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson joked the goals are still going to be 10-feet high. The listed capacity is 1,200.
“I think we’ll get to meet some of the families, and one night we’ll bowl and be there with the families,” Anderson told Arkansas reporters. “We’ll do a clinic, where our guys will perform a clinic, and I think they’ve got it set up maybe a pickup game between the officers and maybe I get a chance to coach and have some fun with them.”
The Horns went halfway around the world in 2014 and lost to the Huskies in a game that counted in the standings. This one will count, too. It doubles as Arkansas’ season opener. The Razorbacks, who have nine newcomers and are young overall, were picked to finish 10th in the SEC preseason poll.
“You don’t really get opportunities like this,” UT guard Elijah Mitrou-Long said. “We’re going to appreciate it. Obviously, Arkansas is a great team. We’re going to have a great crowd and we’re looking forward to it.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.