JACKSONVILLE, Fla, - Just wait until next year is a phrase often tossed around by those whose seasons didn’t live up to expectations.
But in terms of the Arkansas basketball program - who just had its best season in 20 years and won the sixth-most games in the school’s history - it appears to be more of a statement.
Former Razorback head coach Nolan Richardson went around to each player in the locker room after Saturday night’s his team’s 87-78 NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina in the third round of the event.
“You have laid the foundation for something great,” Richardson told one of the players. “Keep your head up and know that the best days are ahead.”
That resonated with junior guard Anthlon Bell, who had 11 points in the loss.
“We had a pretty good season,” Bell said. "Nobody expected us to get this far. I’m pretty sure we made our state and university proud so I feel like we accomplished a lot this season.”
Arkansas finished 27-9 and was in the Top 25 for most of the season after not being in the polls or in the NCAA Tournament for seven years.
“It was a great season, we accomplished a lot,” Bell said. “We got back in the Top 25, we even made it to the Big Dance so there’s nothing to get down on ourselves about for this season because we brought to the season to where no one thought we could bring it.”
Sophomore guard Manuale Watkins feels it was a major step in the right direction.
“It was a building block to bringing the program back, places to where it hasn’t been in a long time,” Watkins said. “We’ve got to keep working and we will be back again next year for sure.”
Arkansas will lose two seniors in Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris, but replace them with two top 50 players nationally in 6-4 guard Jimmy Whitt and 6-9, 240-pound power forward Ted Kapita.
The Razorbacks will also add former Pulaski Academy star and Texas Tech shooting guard transfer Dusty Hannahs (6-4, 210).
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson noted in his post-game press conference that the Razorback program was undergoing a big-time revival.
“It’s been a very good year and there is room for improvement,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a great base coming back and that’s the thing I am really excited about. We’ll add some more pieces.”
Arkansas will certainly be better if sophomore forward and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis and junior guard Michael Qualls - the SEC’s highest scoring duo - both return.
Portis and Qualls both talked about their hopes for Arkansas next season in Saturday night’s post game press conference and all indications are both are preparing to be back.
“Coach did a great job,” Qualls said. “It’s not the end. Like I said, Arkansas basketball is trending in the right direction. We didn’t make it where we wanted to make it this year, but as you can see there is room for improvement. I have the utmost faith in the program.”
Certainly nothing is official on either Portis or Qualls, but will likely be after both get back to school after spring break, which happens on the Arkansas campus this upcoming week.
“No, we haven’t had that conversation,” Anderson said. “Now that the season is over with, we’ll sit down and we’ll visit. Right now these guys, they just lost on the big stage. They’re very, very disappointed. And so the worst thing to do is go right to them now.
“But we’ll sit down, we’ll have some dialogue and it will be some productive dialogue, I’m sure,” Anderson added.
Portis had this to say in the locker room after the game.
"Just sitting down with Coach Anderson, sitting down with my mom and my mentor (Corliss Williamson) and trying to make the right decision for me," Portis said. "It's not just about me anymore. It's about my family and about the Razorbacks. So at this moment, I don't really care about that. I'm just trying to enjoy this ride right now.
"For us to lose this year in the round of 32, you know there is no telling next year what we can do," Portis added. "That's the biggest thing right now is for us looking forward to next year and what we can possibly do next year. If I come back, our team could possibly be a top 10 team and that's something I want to do even more."
Qualls talked about his hopes for the team next season.
"I already know that this team is going to be right, this team is going to be good," Qualls said. "We are going to get back at it, 5 a.m. all over again, blood, sweat and tears all over again. Everybody in here has now been here before so next year it is going to be a lot easier."
Qualls was then asked directly if he would be back next season.
"No comment," Qualls said.
Whitt, who averaged 32 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, is a long-time friend with Watkins.
“Jimmy is a do-it-all kind of guard,” Watkins said. “He’ll add to the ball handling, the scoring, defense. He has really long arms, adds rebounding.
“He is just one of those special players and he will help us out a lot,” Watkins added. “I’m just excited he is on our side.”
He’ll team in a backcourt with freshman Anton Beard among others after a season when Beard showed his potential, but also battled injuries.
“This team will be remembered because of its heart,” Beard said. “That’s definitely one thing this team will be remembered for from here on out.
“It’s a good feeling to even be in this position,” Beard added. “We haven’t been here in a long time.”
Arkansas Takes A Big Step Forward
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