Hoops Commentary

Arkansas' basketball team has begun offseason conditioning drills. It's time to look at how the Hogs shape up for the coming season ... without Joe Johnson.

Whenever I come across someone who knows I contribute to Hawgs Illustrated magazine or knows that I watch a lot of Razorback basketball practices I can count on getting one, or maybe two or three, of these questions:
 1. Can we win without Joe Johnson?
 2. Who will be our "go-to" guy?
 3. Will we make the NCAA tournament?
 4. Why does Nolan recruit so many similar players and seem to ignore the big 
guy that "everyone" seems to agree we need?
With so much interest in so few questions, this seemed to be the ideal kind of subject to try out in the HI premium story space. So here's my best shot at answering them.
Actually the Joe Johnson question is usually phrased, "We had a lottery pick on our roster last year and we didn't get past the first game of the NCAA Tournament.  How much worse will we be this year without Joe?"
My answer is that I think we'll be several games better than last year… primarily for two reasons.  First, even though Joe did lead the team in several categories last year, we really didn't get a lot out of him. The first half of the season he was trying to play hurt.  The second half he was playing trying to keep from getting hurt. Yet both the coaching staff and the players invariably looked to Joe at crunch time… and with his talent it's not hard to understand why that occurred.  So the other players were ambiguous about their roles and uncertain of the expectations of them. As a result, more often than not last year the big play at the end of the game that would have made the difference never got made. There were at least five games last season where that was true.  Win just three of them and we're into a decent seed in the tourney instead of being a bubble team. Win just one (Georgetown) and we advance beyond the first round. As for  the second reason for optimism, not only will there be more certainty about roles and responsibilities.  The experience of four seniors and 6 juniors, together with their  natural expected improvement should bode well for the Hogs.  Will it happen?  I don't know.  That's why they play the games.
On the question about the "go-to" guy, my answer would be that Pargo will most often be the first option, with Dean and Gipson being the bail-out guys if Pargo is stopped.  And if you're looking for a dark horse, try Chuck Tatum.  Tatum, at this early point in the season, appears to be the most improved player. He is shooting three's with confidence (and more importantly, with success), and showing an encouraging ability to put the ball on the floor when crowded and either finishing with a soft runner high off the glass or getting fouled.  And when he's fouled it's an almost  automatic two points. I can hear the skeptics now.  "If Tatum is a go-to guy we're in big trouble."  Maybe. But in view of his skills it makes some sense. Iit would be nice if one of the big guys developed into a genuine offensive threat, but oone's becoming the go-to guy is unlikely.   I think Pargo, who has many of the same skills as Tatum, but at a little higher level, will be the guy who  most often has the ball in his hands at crunch time. And maybe it's another case of making lemonade out of a lemon, but there could turn out to be am advantage in not having a clearcut main man.  Last year there was little doubt in anybody's mind, including the defense's, about who would get the ball. This year defenses may need to concentrate on three men instead of one. T. J. Cleveland is another who seems to want to step up in clutch time and has ability to hit key shots.

Will we make the tournament?  I think so, but we'll likely need an improvement of at least two games over last year… perhaps three.  Why?  Because the NCAA selection committee got burned in the early rounds of the tournament last year, with the mid-to-low- majors beating up on the middle of the pack teams from the so-called power conferences. I'll be surprised if the day of six or seven bids to the power conferences isn't over… at least for a few years.  Can we improve enough in the face of a significantly upgraded schedule?  It's do-able, but it won't be easy. It depends a lot on how strong the conference turns out to be. I don't see anybody in the West that is clearly superior to the Hogs, but the East could turn out to be loaded. We should expect championship-level play out of our group of guards.  But to have success in the NCAAT at least one and preferably two of our big men are going to have to step up their games significantly.
Now the "big man" question. First, I disagree, at least a little bit, with the premise. While it is true that Nolan loves the long-armed 6'8" athlete, he has in fact tried hard for some bigger players, though usually only those able to run the court (with the understandable exception of Jason Jennings, who seemed worth the gamble). Most recently Darius Rice comes to mind. Our fans can  probably rattle off half a dozen other big men that we have wooed unsuccessfully. But it is true that our recruiting lists  have contained  far more 6'4" to 6'9" targets than players above that height. . Maybe the misadventures with Jennings, Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson have soured Nolan on the bigger guys.  But I really think there's another reason, though I have not discussed it with the coaches.  Today the big man whose game is developed enough to help immediately is destined for the NBA… either out of high school or by the end of his freshman year. With the mid-sized player  chances of getting three or four years for the player to learn the intricacies of your system are much better. But there's still another reason, in my opinion.  In the first half of the nineties Nolan's style set the pace, even causing hand checking rule changes.  Today many, many teams play the fast paced game with full-court or ¾ court pressure, frequent substitution, etc.  Even coaches like Eddie Sutton and John Chaney have modified their styles to speed up the game and use more players. I'm convinced that Nolan is taking a calculated risk at something he believes will put him ahead of the curve once again.  While other teams struggle to intregrate below-top-50 big men into their system I think Nolan believes if he puts five long-armed athletes on the court (and another five on the bench) from 6'4" to 6'8"  who can run the court, pound the boards, wreak havoc with the other team's offense, convert turnovers into high-flying dunks and wear the opponents down, he will have found the formula to return the Hogs to the elite of college basketball where it clearly was for the first half of the nineties. I wouldn't bet against him.
--Don Oglesby

Hawgs Daily Top Stories