Yes, it's only July -- the middle of baseball season. Area golf courses are crowded. Football season is just around the corner. And yet, perhaps for the first time in years, a fair share of the conversations at your neighborhood sports bar this year deal with the upcoming Razorback basketball season.
Excitement is in the air, optimism, even. What's going on?
While several factors contribute, the return of the highly popular and very successful Mike Anderson to coach the Hogs probably leads the parade. After years of hardwood success, for much of which Coach Anderson was an integral part, the nine years following his moving on to assume the head coaching position at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri have not been kind to Arkansas' basketball fortunes.
During the 17 years of the Nolan Richardson/Mike Anderson regime the Hogs won 70 percent of their games, 62 percent of their conference games and played in 37 NCAA tournament games, winning 25 of them, including one National Championship.
In the nine years since their departure Arkansas' winning percentage was 46 percent, their winning percentage of conference games was 39 percent and they played in just four NCAA Tournament games, winning only one. And success rates aside, the style of play of the Arkansas teams of the Richardson/Anderson era was especially exciting and a source of pride for Hog fans.
Something tells me the 5,000 who showed up at the announcement press conference to welcome Coach Anderson back was just the first evidence of a rebirth of enthusiasm for Hog hoops.
A second factor pumping up that enthusiasm: the arrival of a highly touted, consensus top seven recruiting class.
In B.J. Young they have a true scoring machine. He can score from behind the 3-point arc and is even better taking the ball to the basket and finishing. His ball handling is good enough that he will likely find himself playing the point much of the time.
At 6-6, Rashad Madden has something that has been lacking in recent Hog teams… length in its perimeter players. And like Young, Madden's forte is taking the ball to the hoop. In early pickup games he also has shown a talent for playing the passing lanes getting out ahead of the pack for transition opportunities.
The 6-10 Hunter Mickelson combines excellent shooting touch with handling skills unusual for a young player of his height. His agility, length, and high basketball IQ suggest that his skill set will also feature shot blocking at the defensive end of the court.
Devonta Abron is a big (6-8 by 240) left hander. His size and strength on a roster that is short on those attributes would seem to assure court time for Abron. But he also brings with him a mid-range game that promises to allow him to play on either end of high/low sets. Look for Abron to capture a starting spot early in his career.
A fifth member of this prized recruiting class, Aaron Ross, was the first to pick up an offer from Arkansas, pledging before his high school sophomore season to become a Hog. His versatility was expected to permit him to both play and defend multiple positions.
Ross has the size and strength to bang and the touch to play facing the basket. Unfortunately Hog fans learned recently that because of a clerical foulup at Parkview High School, the paperwork necessary to permit Ross to take a needed ACT test untimed (due to a certified learning disability) was not submitted on time and as a result Ross will probably be spending the upcoming season at a prep school instead of in Fayetteville, with the likelihood of becoming a Hog the following g season.
A third cause of much basketball related discusion this summer, of course, has been a series of events to test the patience of Hog fans and certainly Arkansas' new coaching staff. Early on it was known that Arkansas was one over the 13-scholarship limit.
This in itself was a topic prompting much speculation among the fan base. But within a month a series of events not only eliminated the scholarship limit as a cause for concern but turned the 14-man roster into one with just 10 scholarship players.
Two players, Jeff Peterson and Glenn Bryant, probably sensing less playing time with the arrival of so much talent, asked for and received their releases. Then the Aaron Ross situation developed, lowering the roster to 11 scholarship players. Finally, The Hogs leading returning scorer, sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke, decided to take his talents elsewhere, after threatening to do that several times, including at the end of last year.
Two of the reasons for enthusiasm among Hog hoop fans were fairly obvious. You likely were way ahead of me in naming the return of Mike Anderson and the skills of the incoming recruiting class as factors prompting much Hog talk. The roster reductions that set tongues wagging came out of the blue and were something the program clearly could have done nicely without.
Fortunately as news of summer pickup games began to make the rounds a fourth factor is emerging to spark talk that is both positive and a bit unexpected. Validation may take a few games, but I'm convinced that the improvement in skills and motivation among the returning players, together with the way their skills mesh with the requirements of Coach Anderson's system, will help greatly to offset the loss of Clarke, Ross, Bryant and Peterson.
Marshawn Powell had a highly successful freshman season. Injuries have plagued him since, but if healthy, and it appears he will be, there's no reason he could not achieve the all-conference berth that was predicted for him last season. Powell is a gifted offensive player who should benefit from the expected increase in the number of possessions per game.
But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the dramatic improvement in last year's role players. In early pickup games Mardracus Wade has shown vast improvement in his shooting, to complement his already advanced defensive skills.
Julysses Nobles' game improved markedly from his freshman to sophomore years and he appears set to have a breakout year as he contends for playing time at the important point guard position.
Ricky Scott, hampered by injury much of last season, has the athleticism and aggressiveness at both ends of the court to fit nicely into the requirements of Coach Anderson's system.
Mike Sanchez appears to be healthy at last and ready to deliver on the promise that made him a prized recruit coming out of high school. Mike will add a much needed toughness to Arkansas' inside game.
My guess is that Marvell Waithe will serve in a "utility infielder" type of role, able to fill in at three positions as needed, and whose length and athleticism will be an asset to the Hogs' defensive game.
Finally, there's walk-on Kikko Haydar. Anyone wondering whether there is a place for an undersized guard with great speed and quickness and better than average shooting skill need only look at tape of the Dallas Mavericks' recent run to the NBA title and pay particular attention to J.J. Barea's contribution.
Early pickup games suggest that Haydar could threaten to play a similar role for the Hogs.
No wonder, then, that a groundswell of enthusiasm has begun to erupt in northwest Arkansas. There's talent, athleticism, coaching, and a hunger brought on by nine years of frustration.
It may take a while to reach its peak, but yes, there are solid reasons to believe that the coming season will be both an end and a beginning – an end to the frustration and a beginning of the return to excellence that Arkansas fans have longed for and that will once again make Bud Walton Arena a place to be feared by opponents.
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