State of the Hogs: Hoops

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With Florida International coming to town (yawn) for a football game, I could have looked for my older brother, once the athletic director of that Miami-based school. He could tell me again about the day he learned his bosses wanted him to start the process of fielding a football team.

Instead, it's a good time to discuss John Pelphrey's first Arkansas basketball team, strangely picked by some earlier this week to win the SEC West.

That's a mild stunner. Stan Heath must have been a wonderful recruiter (or a so-so coach) if he was fired for assembling a team that would be picked to win the division. Or, Chancellor John White and his consulting firm found a superb coach in Pelphrey.

Without going through the rest of the SEC West player by player, I wouldn't know if that's exactly a fair prediction. Pelphrey admits there is enough talent to win every game on the schedule, even the conference games. He also knows talent isn't always the most important ingredient.

But I don't know if these Hogs are equipped to play the way Pelphrey wants, 94 feet of all-out defense. It's nice to say you want to do it, but few have the toughness to pull it off.

And, to play that style, you must be equipped with at least two sets of players on the perimeter. That's not really the kind of team Heath recruited.

For starters, point guard play is crucial. Gary Ervin has been inconsistent in his play and there aren't any other point guards behind him. Patrick Beverley may be the SEC's best shooting guard, but he can't play 40 minutes. He tried to do that last year in Heath's system, but playing extended minutes in an up-tempo system is suicide.

The strength of this team should be the inside game where the Hogs have Stephen Hill, Charles Thomas, Darian Towns, Michael Washington, Vincent Hunter and Michael Sanchez. That's a lot of long arms and size, but it's not a group loaded with great quickness and track-team endurance.

How many of those players can Pelphrey put on the floor together and still extend the floor on defense? Is it two? Is it one?

I can't imagine three frontcourt players ever playing together in that style. Pelphrey hinted at that problem when he said he doubted he'd often play Hill and Towns together (as Heath did often last season).

Can this team avoid injuries the backcourt? That's already been a problem in Pelphrey's time here. He lost Sonny Weems to a broken hand for the Cancun trip on Labor Day. Ervin has been recovering from spring knee surgery. Nate Rakestraw, a true freshman and standout shooter, is out with a broken bone in his hand.

If the Hogs want to extend the floor, they can afford no more backcourt injuries.

This all reminds me of when Nolan Richardson came to Arkansas. He tried to extend the floor with a big, slow team unequipped to press or catch the ball in the open floor. Some dubbed them the bad-hands Hogs. We all had to wait until Richardson could find his type of players. It was ugly at times.

I don't think this is quite that kind of a situation, but the style this team can play won't be clear for a few more weeks. Beverley and Weems look to be the kind of talents to play in any system. They should excel in the open court. Both excited about more chances to create off the dribble, something Pelphrey will stress.

There won't be a lot of tossing the ball around the perimeter in this system. The top players will be encouraged to take it to the basket with two strong dribbles.

That means there won't be a lot of double post sets. Perhaps there may be times when there are no big men in the middle. That would be a stunning change.

However, style is not the key if you listen to Pelphrey. It's about effort on the defensive end and overall toughness. There are clear references to a return to the open court style that Richardson coached, but it's just as much about the hard-nosed way Eddie Sutton (and Richardson) coached at Arkansas as anything else.

Are these players tough enough to play it? That's the big question.

Practices have been closed, but Pelphrey has allowed a few spectators, including some lettermen. They came away talking about the salty way Pelphrey talked to his players. They said he's totally in charge. No matter if you sit in the first row or the corner of the rafters, you can hear every word from the new head coach.

It's also said Pelphrey is coaching every pass, every defensive stance and effort on every loose ball with a heavy emphasis on mental toughness. I thought Sutton and Richardson coached in a way that players feared them more than loved them, not that they didn't eventually love what they became under their coach. It's still early, but Pelphrey appears to coach that way.

Perhaps he's also a lot like Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan. I haven't been around them enough to make those comparisons, but it's more than a safe guess that Pelphrey has some of them, too.

It's OK to expect a lot. That's the way Pelphrey wants it. He came to Arkansas in part because of the storied basketball tradition.

Is he going to add another chapter in his first season? I don't think we'll know until this team plays a few road games in the SEC. That's when we'll find out if he's installed some toughness.

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