When Arkansas gets in the plane Thursday morning to fly to Hawaii, it will be taking a new and improved Michael Qualls to shine in the spotlight at the Maui Invitational.
Qualls, a 6-6, 210-pound sophomore guard, is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds – both second on the team – through the Razorbacks' 3-0 start.
He will also enter Arkansas' Monday 2 p.m. (CST) opener with California (4-0) shooting 53.3 percent (16-of-30) from the field, 40 percent (4-10) from 3-point range and 76.5 percent ( 13-of-17) from the free throw line while also averaging 3 steals, 2 assists and a locker per game.
"I was always focusing on being a more well-rounded player, but I still feel like I can do way better than what I am doing right now," Qualls said. "I can make some better decisions, I can make more easy shots, come up with few more rebounds. But I do feel like I am headed in the right direction."
As does Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, whose team will face a Golden Bears squad that returns four starters from last season's team that went 21-12 last season and made the NCAA Tournament's second round.
"We know his athletic ability is off the charts and now I think you can start seeing his skill level now is starting to come to par," Anderson said. "Now, you see a guy that's really developing. The offseason he's worked extremely hard to get better. His ball-handling is so much better, but he's playing the total game. His jump shot, he's improved on that, but one other thing I've had a talk with him is don't just rely on that.
"...God has gifted him with athletic ability," Anderson said. "He can go block shots. He can go rebound any time he wants to. So consistency and just continuing to do all the little things that add up to winning. He wants to win. So when you ask me, I think that's just the development of a player. He's developing right before our eyes as our team. Our team will do the same. They will change right before your eyes."
Calfornia, whose head coach is former Stanford and NBA coach Mike Montgomery. has downed Coppin State (83-64), Denver (77-50) Oakland (64-60) and Southern Utah (75-47) in four home games so far this season.
The Razorbacks – coming off a 89-78 win over SMU on Monday – are on the same side of the Maui Invitational bracket as Syracuse and Minnesota, who will meet in the second game of the day on Monday at 4:30 p.m. CST.
"That's big," Qualls said of playing in the Maui Invitational. "I remember (Uconn's) Kemba Walker when they went out and played and he was big for them. This is a big stage and if we can do what we can do and come out and play the way we can play, then I know that it will really put us on the map."
The opening round's other two games feature Baylor playing Chaminade at 8:30 p.m. and Dayton and Gonzaga playing at 11 p.m. with the three-day tournament playing through Wednesday.
"It is a great experience going to Hawaii," Qualls said. "You always have to be grateful and blessed about that, but we are going to handle business and we are going to stay focused and try to maintain and focus on the goal at hand."
Qualls has progressed each game this season with 16 points and 5 rebounds against SIU Edwardsville, 16 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists against Louisiana and 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks against SMU.
"It's just being consistent," Qualls said. "I am just trying to go out and do what I you are told and being a leader. I try to crash the boards. I try to do everything. I am going put up my number of shots – just make the number of shots when I do put them up.
"Off-season I put up a lot of 3s, a lot of mid-range, lot of free throws because I feel like with the refs are calling the games now, I am going to get fouled a lot," Qualls added. "I want to make that my bread and butter at the free throw line."
That last effort earned him praise from Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who noted Qualls was the type of player he would love to have on his team.
"That feels great," Qualls said of Brown's praise. "That means he sees something in me. I am just going to keep on working to become a better player and a better teammate."
Qualls is just one of several players that have stepped up to take over the scoring of departed standouts B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell.
Alandise Harris is averaging a team-leading 18.3 points while Anthlon Bell is also in double figures at 12.3 and 6-10 freshman forward Bobby Portis just under at 9.3 points per game.
Coty Clarke is averaging 6 points and a team-high 7.3 boards as part of a Razorback group that is playing well as a team and averaging 89 point per game while giving up just 68.7 so far this season.
"That is real big because now we now have so many weapons offensively that I feel like they can't just play us one way," Qualls said. "Everyone can have a good game now. I feel like being consistent is the main key and that is what I have been trying to focus on...I feel like we have a lot of good players and they are all coming in and delivering."
Qualls may be thrilled with his assists more than anything else right now.
"When you have scorers like Portis, Coty and Alandise and we have Anthlon knocking down the three and we have a lot of great players that can score, it's basically easy," Qualls said. "It is just knowing where they are going to be and the right time. I feel like I know my teammates, their tendencies and where they like to go. I am just playing off them and they make me better."
He is certainly not getting overconfident.
"I try to not even focus on it because like you said you can get big-headed and I am just trying to keep my blessings how they are coming and just keep progressing and being better than I was the last game," Qualls said.
Qualls noted Wednesday that both he and his team can get much better.
"We just have to keep putting the heat on," Qualls said. "Never get relaxed, play with a sense of urgency, know the task, know what we have got to be."
Qualls was known for his high-flying dunks – and to be honest misses – last season, but has even shown improvement this season in knowing when to try and blast one home or just settle for a lay-up.
His slam over 6-10 SIU Edwardsville center Keaton Jackson made ESPN Sports Center top 10 plays earlier this season.
"That is the best one that I have had so far simply because it made the highest number of Sports Center, but still the other game – the Florida game that was crazy and it was a great feeling...I try not to look at them. I think I put up a video on instagram."
Rounding Out His Game
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