The start of SWAC play usually is a welcome sight to the Arkansas-Pine Bluff men’s basketball team.

The start of SWAC play usually is a welcome sight to the Arkansas-Pine Bluff men’s basketball team.

It’s where UAPB puts behind the frustrations and struggles of the nonconference slate that was and makes every game from this point forward count. The challenge that stands before the Golden Lions is the same every year — taking lessons from an otherwise lackluster first part of the season and applying them.

Yes, in a 2-10 stretch marked by cold shooting from the field and one of the worst scoring averages in the nation, the Lions learned some lessons.

"It taught us things about playing hard the entire game, learning our weaknesses and taking care of the basketball," coach George Ivory said. "We really have a lot of things to work on."

If all goes really well in SWAC play, an almost winless season to begin with turns into a winning season. And it raises expectations for the following season.

"What’s happening is that you have to look at it from a standpoint that we want to take that challenge of being a top team every year," Ivory said.

So Ivory, whose Lions are predicted to finish third behind defending regular-season champion Texas Southern and reigning tournament champion Southern, doesn’t mind the tall order his team faces to achieve a second straight overall winning record. UAPB went 16-14 overall and 15-3 in the SWAC last season to tie for second place.

The Lions capped the campaign by beating Mississippi Valley State in overtime on the road to secure the winning record, and the Mississippi Valley is where the Lions begin their SWAC slate on Saturday. UAPB and Valley will play at the Leflore County Civic Center in Greenwood, Miss., Valley’s temporary home while its on-campus arena undergoes renovations.

Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m., following the 3 p.m. UAPB-Valley women’s game.

UAPB has won the last three meetings with its natural conference rival, and each victory has carried plenty of significance. UAPB won the 2012 regular-season finale in Pine Bluff ending Valley’s bid for an unbeaten SWAC record, beat the Delta Devils again to open the 2013 SWAC season and start a three-game winning streak, and won the pivotal finale in Itta Bena.

"Anytime you’re playing them, it’s becoming a rivalry, and with the season opener, it’s going to be a very competitive basketball game," said Ivory, a Valley alumnus.

For two teams that are ineligible to compete in the postseason for a second straight year (Grambling State also is ineligible from the SWAC this year), Saturday means the start to a very important part of their schedule. All the Lions and Devils have to play for is the SWAC regular-season title, which another postseason-banned team — Texas Southern — won last year.

At 4-9, Valley goes into Saturday’s game with a slightly prettier record than UAPB, but only one of its wins came against a Division I team (Big South Conference member Longwood). The Devils, however, are undefeated in Greenwood (2-0) and have four players who average double-figure scoring, including Jeffrey Simmons (15.7 points per game) and Anthony McDonald (15.2), both junior guards.

Simmons, a Greenwood product, scored a career-high 22 points Tuesday in only his third game with Valley, a 99-87 win over Selma (Ala.). He did not play last season after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, but it was not immediately clear why.

"Jeffrey is an outstanding basketball player," Ivory said, "a guy who can create his own shot. We have to keep our eyes on him."

UAPB point man Tevin Hammond likely will be matched up against Simmons. Hammond has led the Lions in scoring each of the past three games, scoring no fewer than 19 points, and has emerged as the team’s offensive leader on the season at 13.3 ppg.

"Tevin is an outstanding scorer as well as a point guard," Ivory said. "I’ve told him to look for his shot more than in the past. He’s shooting it pretty good."

Senior center Daniel Broughton will return to the Lions’ lineup after a two-game absence to rehabilitate his injured knee. Saturday’s game also will be a homecoming for UAPB freshman two-guard Ghiavonni Robinson, who starred last season at Leflore County High School in Itta Bena.