FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas women’s basketball coach Tom Collen is proud of the way his young team handled nonconference play, passing every test en route to the program’s best start since the 2007-08 season at 13-0.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas women’s basketball coach Tom Collen is proud of the way his young team handled nonconference play, passing every test en route to the program’s best start since the 2007-08 season at 13-0.

But Collen also was realistic about the competition his team faced on most nights.

"I think it’s been very average," Collen said. "It’s not a great strength of schedule. I think the strength of schedule is going to dramatically increase as the season goes on. But I think we’ve done everything we could do with this team in order to prepare it for conference play."

Collen and the Razorbacks — who closed nonconference play with a 100-54 win against Mississippi Valley State last week — will begin to find out what they’re capable of beginning tonight, when they open Southeastern Conference play against No. 13 South Carolina (12-1)in Bud Walton Arena.

It’s the start of a 16-game conference schedule that will show whether Arkansas is NCAA Tournament-worthy. Forward Keira Peak said the Razorbacks are ready to get started.

"I feel like the team’s very excited about going into SEC play, to be challenged on a different level," Peak said. "You can’t go into the SEC thinking you’re going to win a game, because every game is going to be a challenge, so we’re pretty excited about that. Every game is going to be a challenge."

Arkansas carries an undefeated record into conference play for the third time in seven years (2010-11, 2007-08). But a great start hasn’t led to SEC success.

The Razorbacks didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament in either season. Arkansas went 6-10 in conference play in 2010-11 and played in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The 2007-08 team went 2-12 in SEC play and finished 17-13.

But Collen believes his 2013-14 team is capable of SEC success even though it is leaning on a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores. And even though the Razorbacks were selected in a preseason poll to finish 12th in the SEC, Collen said that has been a source of motivation for his team throughout this season.

"I think this is one of the more talented teams we’ve had," Collen said. "We’re certainly a young team, and we certainly need to get some more experience. … But we certainly want to show up right away on Thursday night. We want to be able to prove that our record is not a fluke, that we’re a pretty good baseball team."

The first test won’t be easy. South Carolina is the first ranked opponent on the schedule. The Gamecocks defeated Arkansas 43-40 in Fayetteville last season, went 11-5 in the conference play and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Both teams are expecting another rugged game tonight. Arkansas leads the NCAA in scoring defense (44.6 points per game), while South Carolina is third (48.3).

"Traditionally, these games with South Carolina are in the mid-40s," Collen said. "So it’s pretty hard to score against good defensive teams. Certainly, I think (South Carolina coach Dawn Staley) probably feels like she has a team that scores a little bit better this year, and we feel the same way.

"I would anticipate, not a game in the 40s, but I think you’re going to see a real defensive struggle. Two teams that scout each other very well. Two teams that defend awfully well.

"It’s not going to be a high-scoring game, I don’t think."

But Collen is hoping his team — which is led by freshman forward Jessica Jackson (14.8 points per game) — will find a way to score just enough to win.

If so, it would snap Arkansas’ seven-game losing streak in conference openers and help the Razorbacks show their nonconference schedule prepare them for SEC play.

"All we can do is just prove them wrong," Peak said. "Our first challenge is Thursday, and maybe they can watch that game and see how good we really are."

Today’s Ticket

Women’s NCAA Basketball

No. 13 South Carolina at Arkansas

TIPOFF: 7 p.m. TV: None.

WHERE: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville.

RADIO: Razorback Radio Network.

RECORDS: South Carolina Gamecocks, 12-1, 0-0 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas, 13-0, 0-0.

LAST GAME: South Carolina defeated Savannah State 82-40 on Dec. 28 in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks’ only loss this season was a 74-66 setback against No. 14 North Carolina on Dec. 18 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Arkansas defeated Mississippi Valley State 100-54 on Dec. 28 in Fayetteville.

SERIES: Arkansas leads 17-10 (10-3 in Fayetteville).

LAST MEETING: South Carolina, ranked 18th, defeated No. 14 Arkansas 43-40 on Jan. 27, 2013, in Fayetteville.

LAST ARKANSAS WIN: The Razorbacks won 68-47 on Feb. 9, 2012, in Fayetteville.

COACHES: South Carolina, Dawn Staley (104-67, sixth season, 3-3 against Arkansas 276-147 overall, 14th season); Arkansas, Tom Collen (126-79, seventh season, 3-4 against South Carolina, 343-149 overall, 16th season).