University of Arkansas basketball coach John Pelphrey agrees with the so-called experts about how this is a rebuilding year for the Razorbacks.
He just disagrees with them on where the squad – which lost star Patrick Beverley to an academic issue over the summer and returns only three players who have ever played a game for the UA - might be at the end of the year.
"You look at our basketball team when we took this thing over (more than) a year ago, you looked at short term situations and you looked at big picture things," Pelphrey said. "A part of evaluating the whole process is kind of where we are today.
"Make no mistake, this is rebuilding," Pelphrey said. "You don't lose that many guys from any organization and there not be some transition from one year to the next…We have worked very hard on the recruiting process to bring in a talent level of guys, good young players, pieces that we can really, really build on for the future and build toward championships. That is what we are here to do."
That will begin Friday when Arkansas officially opens practice. The Razorbacks will already have five workouts in before the weekend is over and will have their first public unveiling on Oct. 24 with the Red-White game.
"This is a time right now where we have got to establish our brand, establish a work ethic, an understanding of team and sacrifice on a daily basis to get to that point and time," Pelphrey said. "I am excited about that. I really am.
"I know former (Pelphrey and Kentucky head) Coach (Rick) Petino when I was a player always talked about the process and the journey when you look back on it may be more rewarding than the destination," Pelphrey continued. "I don't know about that, but we'll see. I am certainly fond of the championships we were able to win at South Alabama and I can remember the journey very, very well. It was an enjoyable time."
Juniors Michael Washington (6-9, 239) and Stefan Welsh (6-3, 185) join sophomore Marcus Britt (6-3, 198) as the only three returning players who saw action for the Razorbacks last season.
"Losing the top seven guys, it's basically 80 percent of any category that you want to talk about on the stat sheet," Pelphrey said. "With all that being said, with the guys we have in the program, with our work ethic and understanding of team and being able to sacrifice and commit yourself to winning, I still believe we can compete and win with anybody on our schedule. The goals and the expectations at the University of Arkansas have not changed.
"We are going to try and win as many games as we can in non-conference – and it is going to one of the best non-conference schedules year in and year out because that is just what history tells us," Pelphrey continued. "That is just what we do at Arkansas. And then we are going to get to conference play and do everything we can to get to win a Western Division championship. We know if we can compete for a Western Division championship, you can compete for the overall and if you can compete for the overall in the SEC – one of the best conferences in America – that it is going to take care of postseason play."
Some might say that is more optimistic than realistic.
"Somebody ask me ‘are those expectations and goals realistic?' Well, if they are not realistic we need to work harder to make them become realistic," Perlphrey said. "We are not changing the bar. I understand that success can sometimes be measured in logical ways, not just the wins and loss columns. That is not lost on me. I have coached those teams, I have played on those teams. But at the end of the day, we are not changing our thought process."
Washington averaged 4.3 points and 3.9 rebounds last season – a step back from his freshmen season when he contributed mightily down the stretch for an NCAA tournament team.
Of course last season there were six big guys on the Razorbacks team and this year Washington is expected to be the bellcow inside.
"I think Mike had a phenomenal summer," Pelphrey said. "Mike has changed his body, he has been very, very consistent with his work ethic. Mike has had pockets of success over the last two years. We need Mike to be consistent in terms of play. We all know from a talent level that he is good enough to get things done at this level."
Welsh started 21 of his team's 35 games last season, becoming a key sparkplug off the bench toward the end of the season.
"He has had big games for us," Pelphrey said. "Last year he was huge in the first two games of the SEC Tournament. We need sustained play. I think he too has been more committed than he ever has been to school, to conditioning. I think he has made some strides there."
Britt, a solid offensive player in high school, didn't shoot the ball well last season, but did contribute defensively.
"Marcus Britt is a better basketball player today than he was a year ago," Pelphrey said. "Physically he looks tremendous and in our workouts, I think he has improved."
The backcourt gets an influx in talent with a pair of highly regarded freshmen – point guard Courtney Fortson (5-11, 180) and combo guard Rotnei Clarke
(6-0, 185), the all-time leading scorer in the history of the state of Oklahoma.
"Rotnei is as fine a 3-point shooter as there is in the country," Pelphrey said. "…Courtney Fortson is just a very, very, tough , nasty, hardnosed point guard who is capable of getting by his guy, making good decisions. He and Rotnei are the type of guys we are going to be able to win championships with down the road."
Redshirt freshman Michael Sanchez (6-8, 235) and incoming freshman Andre Clark (6-9, 218) – who went practice through the last semester with the Razorbacks – join Brandon Moore (6-9, 215) to round out the "bigs."
"Both of those young men are going to find themselves in situations – because of where we are right now - playing with the outcome of the basketball game in jeopardy when in normal situations maybe they would have had a chance to bide their time a little bit," Pelphrey said.
The Razorbacks have added a pair of small forwards in junior college transfer Montrell McDonald (6-5, 181) and freshman Jason Henry (6-6, 189), a former West Memphis star who has been at prep school the last two seasons.
"They are two long athletic wings," Pelphrey said. "Montrell is probably more athletic up off the floor, good handler, good passer, has the potential to be an outstanding defensive player and rebounder.
"Jason is probably more of a highly skilled guy in terms of handling and passing and shooting with a little bit of range," Pelphre added.
Former walk-on Stephen Cox (6-3, 201) is also on scholarship this year with the Razorbacks set to add two to four walk ons after tryouts on Tuesday.
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