Let's talk about the Hog newcomers. This will have to be in generalities for two reasons. First, the NCAA position that there should be no reporting of newcomer scrimmages, no interviews, etc., until after the players have started classes. Second, I just haven't seen enough of them on the court to make more than preliminary observations about their skills.
Sonny Weems was the best player on the championship Juco team last year and has garnered mention as the best Juco player in the country. Heck, even if he's in the top ten that's good enough for me. Sonny is a slasher and an athletic finisher on the break. If a 3 comes his way in the course of the offense he'll take it and make a decent percentage, but the offense won't be designed with a primary objective of getting him that shot. But i wouldn't be surprised if some of the offense runs through him, much as it has done Ronnie in the past (although, with Ervin and McCurdy available that will be more an option than a necessity). If the Hogs run as expected Sonny will give the fans some spectacular moments with rousing dunks off the break (one of which made an ESPN highlight reel I'm told.)
Patrick Beverley was a prolific scorer in high school who topped off his pre-college days with some spectacular work in a couple of late spring all-star games. While he'll look first to take the ball to the basket as well, the 3-point shot is more a part of his repertoire than it is Weems'. One of the things Patrick does best is move without the ball, constantly in motion to get himself loose. He could play the point in a pinch and is an intense defender, expending as much energy at the defensive end as on offense.
Which is why Stefan Welsh becomes important . I have no idea at this stage which of the two will grab the bigger portion of the available minutes (Sean McCurdy will be in the hunt as well). But the games of Welsh and Beverley are similar. It seems to me that Patrick is a bit quicker and Stefan a bit stronger. Both look for openings to the basket and both can shoot the three. I haven't seen Welsh play enough defense to comment, but he comes with a reputation as a solid defender. Both should fit in well with the plan to be a more up-tempo offensive team that intends to get points off defensive pressure.
Last, but certainly not least, Michael Washington may have the biggest upside of the group. A 6'10" athlete who is not shy about going after the rebounds, has a good face-up shot from 12 to 15 feet and quick moves in the post is a skill mix that, with development, holds great promise. If he's ready he'll contend for playing time at both the 4 and 5 positions. But because of the abilities and skills of the Razorbacks' iinside players, the coaches wil have the luxury of being able to bring him along slowly. "Skills and abilities of the inside players..." How long has it been since the Hogs have been able to look forward to an abundance of that in its inside players?
This segment wraps up the pre-season preview. If they start conditioning and individual skills sessions early in September I'll try to give you a little flavor of that. Shirley and I will be heading for the Pacific Northwest for a week or so the second week of September. By the time we get back from that the beginning of formal practices will be only a few weeks away.
The Hogs soph power forward has a couple skills that could earn him playing time this season even though he has four experienced veterans ahead of him and an athletic, promising freshman nipping at his heels. First of all, in a team lacking a dominating rebounder McGowan has a nose for the basketball and has shown that invaluable ability to sense which side of the basket the rebound will go to and the strength, quickness and will to go after it. Secondly, he's is a banger who doesn't shy away from contact. I can see a possible role against a player like Big Baby Davis. Ask his teammates who they least like to match up with in practice and my guess is that most will say "C-Mac". I'll promise you he won't back away -- from Davis or anyone else he might match up with.
In terms of other skills, Cyrus' best offensive weapon, imo, is a 10 to 15-foot face-up jumper, on which he will use the board when the anlge to the basket permits. He seems to have 3-point range in shoot-arounds, but don't hold your breath expecting to see one in a game.
McGowan was scheduled for an arthroscopic procedure to remove a couple pieces of cartilege in the knee as I undersand it... probably is already in a rehab process and shold be ready to go by the time practices start.
My morning papers contain stories about how competition is spurring the development of Arkansas football players. The stories focus on the battles at wide receiver and at free safety. Against that background I'm licking my lips over what I see as a major tussle for playing time between Charles Thomas and Vincent Hunter -- a friendly competition that can't help but improve the play of both. We'll talk about Charles in today's story.
One thng that really jumps out at those who have seen the Hogs working during the summer is that Charles Thomas has spent plenty hours in the weight room. Gone is the baby fat and Charles looks as if he might be a candidate for tight end. But one imagines that basketbal conditioning trainer Kelly Lambert has fashioned a program aimed not only at increasing his strength, but his quickness as well.
Thomas increased his scoring outputfrom 5-plus to 9-plus ppg
from his freshman to sophomore years. Another 4-point increase would be nice, and is not beyond reach. especially if Thomas spends some time at the 3 position backing up Sonny Weems as seems likely. While he didn't get many opportunities last year from his power forwrd position, Charles showed a good 3-point touch when the opportunity presented itself. Watching his work this summer one guesses that, along with his work in the weight room, Charles has found plenty time to work on his 3-point stroke as well.
I seem to remember a tv show or a cartoon or something called "Charles in Charge." As applied to the Hog basketball team the headline should read "Charles Takes (another) Charge, as he has shown no hesitation to put his body in harm's way as his opponent has dared to try to take it to the hole. Ironically he will be a bit vulnerable to charge calls against himself as he tends to favor a spin move on his way to the basket. That move does get him open, but also puts him at risk for charge calls.
Will Charles play mostly 3 or 4? Probably some of both. He'll have to prove he has he quickness to handle at the defensive end the athletes who tend to congregate at the 3 position in the SEC. On the other hand, can they handle Charles' power and nose for the ball? Buy your ticket and come to the Bud and find out for yourself.
If hard work has anything to do with it Sean McCurdy should be in for a successful season. The Hogs' soph point guard is a gym rat if there ever was one. It seemed that everytime I dropped by BWA this summer (usually half an hour or so ahead of the open gym period) Sean would already be on hand and will have worked up a good sweat, either in shooting at the basket that is equipped with a ball return or shooting from all stations around the 3-point line with Kevin Kyser shagging balls for him. Hard telling how many thousands of 3's he has put up during the off season.
While Sean is certainly in the picture, my guess is that
Gary Ervin will win the battle to start at point. But Sean will be a solid backup. And I think it's likely that he'll get some minutes at the shooting guard slot as well as the Hogs break in two talented freshmen at that position.
Sean sees the court well and is pretty effective in getting the ball into the post. He shares with Ervin a willingness and ability to push the tempo -- a quality that will be tested as Arkansas seeks to become more of a running team. While not possessing blazing speed he has pretty good quickness and lateral movement. Already a more than decent shooter, McCurdy's hard work should pay off in an improved 3-point percentage. The "wait and see" aspect for McCurdy is probably whether he has the quickness to contend defensively with the SEC caliber guards. Along with his lateral mobility, the best thing going for him in that respect is the imposing presence of Steven Hill, always lurking to pick up the guys who beat their man on the perimeter.
Most of the past four seasons the Hogs have suffered from the lack of a true point guard. Eric Ferguson gave it his best shot as he worked his tail off game after game and was effective at the defensive end. But point guard was not a natural position for him and at times it cost the Hogs. It was hoped that Dontell Jefferson would get the job done, allowing Ferguson to stay at the 2 guard, but Dontell struggled during his first season and was a bit erratic even as a senior. Having two natural points on the squad (and judging from his play at point in one of the all-star games I saw, Patrick Beverley could give them additional depth) will be a luxury for Stan Heath and his staff.
To his teammates he's "V", short for his first name, of course. But in the case of the Hogs' Vincent Hunter "V" could just as easily stand for "Versatile." That's because the 6'10" Hunter, while expected to engage in a hot battle with Charles Thomas for the starting power forward position, could just as easily find himself earning minutes at small forward and filling in at center.
Those of you who have been members of this board for a few years know that I have been talking up Hunter's skills since seeing him in action at the games in Cancun at the beginning of his freshman season. Former assistant coach Rob Flaska once told me he thought Vincent could eventually turn out to be the best of this 3-man recruiting class, which also included the more ballyhooed Ronnie Brewer and Olu Famutimi.Unfortunately a series of injuries has held back his development.
Finally, as he begins his junior season it appears that "V" is healthy and ready to compete in the SEC wars. He has put on some weight (actually quite a lot since his freshman days), yet has retained his exceptional speed up the court. His quickness will present problems when being guarded by the SEC's big men inside and his long arms and good jumping ability allow him to rise above perimeter opponents when playing at the "3". In fact, his ability to hit the "3" or put the ball on the floor and take it to the hole present problems for his defender whether he be big or small. Hog fans can expect to see Vincent "leak out" to recieve long passes for layups as the Hogs look to speed up the tempo and Vincent beats his man up the court. Or with his height he can be a good release man for the second pass against pressing teams. At the defensive end of the court Hunter's long arms should be a benefit when the team employs a press, a defensive tactic the Hogs are expected to use more frequently this season.
If he can stay healthy and if he can overcome a sight tendancy to get down on himself when he is not playing well Vincent Hunter should enjoy a strong junior season and begin to fulfill his early promise.
As Arkansas' most accomplished inside scorer, the play of Darian Townes could be a big key to the Hogs' success this year.
Townes arrived in Fayetteville with a big reputation as a shot blocker, having apparently surpassed Alonzo Mourning's record in prep school. Finishing second to Hill in that category in both his frst two years, Darian has proved the reputation was deserved. But he most impressed Hog fans his freshman season with his surprising offensive game, showing a very tough step-through move, a jump hook, a quick turn-around jumper, and the ability to run the court -- a characteristic shared by all the Hog big men.
Fan expectations soared and Darian's sophomore year, frankly, was a bit of a disappointment. But maybe it was as much because of expectations as because of a drop in play level, as a check of the stats shows an improved shooting percentage, more shot blocks and better rebounding stats. Probably any disappointment resulted from the fact that, rather than improving as expected, his scoring average dropped (albeit and surprisingly, only by less than a point.) Playing despite a nagging knee injury may also have contributed.
At any rate, the very best news to this observer has been a much improved work ethic in pickup games over the summer. Darian's aggressive play and on-court demeanor on one summer day shortly after he returned from his big man's camp prompted me to ask graduate assistant Kevin Kyser and one of the managers "What are you guys feeding Townes, anyway?" They laughed, and knew exactly what I was talking about. But to be honest, I saw that same attitude on display in more than one of this summer's open gym sessions. Getting the ball on time and in position to score from point guards Gary Ervin and Sean McCurdy may be having something to do with raising Darian's spirits.
It will be interesting to see how much we see the two inside guys, Hill and Townes, playing together. That could be a formidable front line, though as aggressive shot blockers it runs the risk of foul trouble to both, while alternating them would avoid much of that risk. But if Darian can maintain the tough guy demeanor and bring that to the games on a consistent basis he will guarantee himself significant minutes on the court. And he'd better, because Vincent Hunter, Charles Thomas, Cyrus McGowan and Michael Washington will be breathing down his neck, pressing for playing time at one of the two inside positions.
Steven Hill is arguably the best and certainly one of the best players in the country when it comes to defending the paint. I'm not talking so much about individual defensive responsibillities against the opposing post player, although Steve is certainly more than adequate in that respect. But in terms of picking up a loose man driving to the hoop and helping to defend a cutter down the lane I don't kinow of anybody any better. Not only is he among the best in blocked shots and deflections, but he also causes countless shot alterations. With the speed and quickness of our perimeter players and power forwards this team should be able to do a better job of grabbing those deflections and alterations, preventing many of the weak-side putbacks that negated some of Steve's blocks last season.
At the offensive end of the court Hill has been a tantalizing enigma. On many occasions last season those who watched Steve in practice came away scratching their heads as to why those moves did not show up in games, leading to Stan's references to "our practice All-American" on more than one occasion. I am a little reluctant to say this, as I have said similar things in the past that have not come to be, but I see in Steven Hill this summer a Patti LaBelle-like "New Attitude." Steve is posting up strong, demanding the ball and finishing. He is MUCH more aggressive offensively. He is working to get loose under the basket for ally-oops and when he does Gary and Sean are looking for him and getting him the ball for thunder dunks. I don't see Steve being a 20-point a game scorer, especially with the other offensive weapons available to this team, but I do think a 10-point average, with some games of 15 or so is doable. Hill is stronger, quicker, more muscular, and perhaps most significantly more confident and determined to be a factor at the offensive end of the court.
In terms of weaknesses, Steve has had a tenancy to foul, especially in games handed by a couple SEC officials who tend to call fouls on every blocked shot attempt. With his new aggression Hill is going to have to be a bit careful not to pile up the personal fouls.
It's going to be fun watching Hill progress during the remainder of his Arkansas career (I hope) and his years in the NBA that will surely follow.
Gary Ervin is the first experienced true point guard that Stan has had in his four years on the hill. He has a terrific understanding of how the game should be played ane what the role of the PG is. He's super quick. looks to push the tempo at every opportunity.
He'll find his scorers on the wings and he is pretty adept at feeding the post. And he can get to the basket himself. In the pickup games ally oops to Steve Hill power slamshave been a frequent occurence. Gary dribbles well with either hand and can change direction on a dime. He is a good perimeter defender - a pest is what he is, who move his feet well on defense. He will take a chance if there is a payoff in sight, and as a result will throw one away once in a while. In the past he has not been a great perimeter shooter, though he beat us with a last second 3 in one game. But he has been working really hard on his shot, shooting by himself in the gym using the mechanical goal that returns balls to the shooter.
In the pickup games I have seen his shot has been much more certain, though of course he has to carry that over to the games. I think he will, and even if he doesn't he will make a huge diffference in this team's offense, in my opinion.
Will talk about Steven Hill in tomorrow's post. Forgot to mention that another real strength of GE is his leadership abilities. They were evident even when he was red shirting, and have become really obvious in this summer's workouts. Expect him to play about 28 to 30 minutes a game at point, with Sean McCurdy providing solid play the other minutes. Sean also has been shooting hundreds of threes in the off season and will likely get a chance to get some minutes at the two.
PRESTON CRANFORD, LUKE ALLEN and SAMMY MUNSEY
I'm going to group the three remaining returning players in today's segment, inasmuch as all three are in similar situations... Preston Cranford, Luke Allen and Sammy Munsey. Four years ago all three would have been in the hunt for playing time. This is nothing more than my opinion, but I think the talent level on this year's team has advanced so much that none of the three is likely to see much more than mop-up duty.
Preston Cranford is the best bet to make me eat my words. I have seen Preston in some practice sessions light up the scoreboard with his three-point shooting... just not often enough to prove that he can do it on a regular enough basis to claim playing time. If he has continued to work hard during this past summer and improved his quicknes a bit he could see duty against the zone defenses that opponents are almost certain to throw at the Hogs, especially at the beginning of the season.
Luke Allen is a transfer student from NAIA Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Luke has some skills and his all around game is solid enough (he understands the game and makes few mistakes) that in the event of injuries to the scholarship players he could be plugged into the rotation and the Hogs could likely move on without losing much. Luke averaged 7 ppg in his sophomoe season at Westmont. He practiced with the Hogs during his redshirt season last year. Sammy Munsey was a two-time all-state player at Pulaski Academy, averaging over 20 ppg in his senior year. Sammy has a good 3-point shot and may be the most athletic of these three players.
While the three may or may not break into the rotation for playing time, one thing is certain. They all are good, hard working practice players who give the starters good looks at the opponents' offense and defense as members of the scout team, and as substitute for the regulars during the long, rigorous practices that characterize the Hogs' regimen under Coach Heath.
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