A minimum of five Razorback basketball players have taken off their Hog togs for the last time. And a minimum of five new players have yet to don theirs.
That's a lot of turnover. Given the ups and downs of the past season it's probably inevitable that a certain amount of uncertainty, maybe even trepidation, will characterize some postings on message boards like this one. But hey, better days are coming.
That's my message and I'm hoping that in laying out my case I convince those skeptics among us to rest easy. Let's examine several important areas to see how much improvement we can realistically expect.
1. Does the influx of new talent outweigh the outflow of talent and experience?
2. Can we expect Strength and Conditioning Coach David Deets' off-season program to transform the bodies of returning and incoming players to meet the unique needs of Coach Anderson's program?
3. How much improvement can we expect from the off-season skills development program and will the returning and new players embrace it?
4. Do changes in the rules and their interpretation suggest that adjustments in style of play should be considered?
5. Where will on-court and locker room leadership come from?
Let's examine the influx-outflow question first. Departing senior Coty Clarke, like his team, had his ups and downs last season, though many more ups than downs.
But aside from Clarke the remaining four seniors, while setting a fine example of team togetherness, effort and heart, were at best average skill level for a major D1 team. They will be missed more in the locker room than on the court, but they will be missed.
On the influx side we probably can all agree that Anton Beard has a solid shot at stardom. Any remaining doubters were likely convinced by his performance in the 7A State Championship Tournament.
And imagine it... two bona fide point guards in the incoming recruiting class. For at the very least Jabril Durham's stats (21.2 ppg, 50% FG%, 44.1 percent 3-point, 74 percent free throw) suggest that he will be a big-minute backup for Beard, with a legitimate chance to battle for the starting job.
Versatility characterizes Nick Babb's game. He could show up on the court in the 1, 2 or 3 positions. And mark down Keaton Miles as my choice for sleeper in the group... sleeper onl;y because his numbers at West Virginia were modest, but promising because his game so perfectly fits Mike Anderson's system.
He is an effort player who loves to play defense and rebound and I'm betting his offense will flourish in a get-out-and-go game with some slam-bang finishes. A final (as of today) member of the recuiting class is big man (6-10, 290) Trey Thompson, whom I will talk about a little later.
On to the second category of potential improvement, the weight room. Here's where we will get our first glimpse at how competitive these 14-15 Hogs will be. We know that last year the summer program put almost 30 lbs. on Jacorey Williams, 20 on Portis and 17 on Kingsley even while recovering from a bout with malaria.
I'm looking forward to what David Deets can do for an encore with Portis and Kingsley and especially how he might convert a little of the extra weight on rookie Trey Thompson into solid bankboard busting, screen setting muscle. I'm hoping we'll also see some transformation in the physical development of Qualls, Bell and Madden.
Now, how about skills development? I'm going to answer the easy part first. Yes, the returning and incoming players will diligently follow the development regimen laid out for them.
They'd better, because with that influx of talent the fight for playing time will be fierce and the winners will be the guys who have worked hardest in strengthening any weaknesses in their games.
Conventional wisdom says that the period of greatest development comes between the freshman and sophomore years. Let me surprise you a little in telling you what I think will best insure that conventional wisdom will hold true for Portis and Kingsley. His name is Trey Thompson.
Why? Because his presence, assuming David Deets' work with him has the desired result, will do the thing you guys have been clamoring for. It will enable Coach Andeson to play Portis and Kingsley together and still have two bigs on the court 90 percent or so of the time if needed. And there are several other bonuses.
Most directly,the increased time on the court for the bigs should mean faster development in their games.
All three big men being better than average passers, the high/low game that looked good at times last season should flourish. And by flourishing it should offer at least partial solution to two of the biggest weaknesses of this past season -- an improved attack against zone defenses and more good looks for our perimeter shooters.
Assuming we are right that competition will make gym rats out of guys like Madden, Qualls, Harris, Williams. Miles, Bell and Watkins, perimeter shooting should get a second boost from their off-season work. And Beard, Durham and Babb should further strengthen outside shooting. And hopefully it's not asking too much for the three incoming guards to improve our ability to take opposing defenders off the dribble.
Finally from a skills development perspective I'm looking for Miles, Qualls, Williams,Bell, Harris and Watkins all with a year more work behind them, to make our trademark pressure defense all the more daunting for opponents. It shouldn't be a surprise, though, if we see a drop-off in our defensive effectiveness early in the seaon due to the departures of five seniors, several of whom were among our better defenders.
Hopefully having two bigs on the floor as rim protectors will offset that loss until the newcomers can catch onto the defensive rotations.
A fourth area of concern, at least for some of you, has addressed the "fastest forty minutes" style of play. Do the rules interpretation changes penalize our approach and do the frequent timeouts and increasing frequency and length of huddles by game officials reduce the effectiveness of our game strategy?
Maybe, but if the suggestion is that it should be abandoned or signicantly altered my reaction would be "I sure hope not." We have just spent the better part of three years assembling a cast of players with the skill set to manage playing the fastest forty. Looking back I can only recall a game or two where excessive whistle blowing seriously affected the outcome and none where I thought official huddles bailed out tiring opponents as it did against Utah in the NCAA Tournament in Boise in 1998.
Concerning on-court and locker room leadership I confess that I don't know. To the extent that character is a prerequisite to leadership I think our roster includes more than enough high-character kids that they should be fine. But leadership is more than character and we'll just have to see who can develop those skills to the extent that his teammates will follow his lead.
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