State of the Hogs: Fortson, Clarke
The first time Rotnei Clarke met Courtney Fortson was before a pickup game on campus this past summer. You could have fooled everyone after the way they meshed Thursday night in Bud Walton Arena.
It was only an exhibition against lowly Dillard from the NAIA ranks, but Arkansas' freshmen guards sparkled enough to give hope in a year when no one outside of the Ozarks expects anything from the Razorbacks.
They didn't get to play together in either the Red-White or Campbellsville exhibitions because Fortson, the deluxe point guard, was suspended. They had a field day as Arkansas poured in 61 first-half points against the Blue Devils on the way to a 108-80 victory.
Fortson fed Clarke (and his teammates) to the tune of nine first half assists while leading the team in first-half minutes with 16. Clarke scored 14 points in his 15 minutes. They would finish the game with 10 assists and 20 points, respectively. None of it surprised Clarke.
"Courtney is just as unbelievable as I thought he'd be," Clarke said. "The first time I met him this summer was for pickup games and I went right to him to introduce myself. I told him, ‘I'm on your team.'
"He puts me in more open situations than I've ever seen in my life. Wide-open spots. He is not a typical point guard. Unbelievable."
Fortson remembers it, too.
"Crazy is what I'd call that day," Fortson said. "I'd heard of him and knew he was good. But it was crazy. I was driving and kicking and he made every shot. Every one.
"He's so consistent with his shot. I'm telling you, he hasn't even moved out yet. No one has forced him from the (3-point) line. He can shoot it deep, real deep."
It's not just going to be fun for Clarke, Fortson and Arkansas fans. Think about the Arkansas coaches. I watched veteran assistant Rob Evans as Clarke and Evans sat down for breaks during the Dillard game. The young guns took a seat next to Evans and soaked up his thoughts.
I liked what Evans said a couple of weeks ago when Clarke and Fortson were mentioned. The first thing Evans did was give them credit for big-time smarts.
"I just think they were very intelligent to come to the same school because they are going to make each other so much better," Evans said. "A point guard needs a shooter. A shooter needs a point guard. They knew they would be so much better together and that was a part of their decision when they were picking a college. That's smart on their part. They made great decisions.
"They are going to complement each other. They need each other and understand that so well. They get along and play so well together. They understand spacing. Rotnei understands that when Fortson starts to make his move, he needs to get away from him so that Courtney can find him. They get it."
Evans thinks there will be a time in the not-so-distant future that Fortson and Clarke will be compared with the great backcourt sets in college basketball.
"I don't know how long it's going to take, but it will happen," he said. "It may be when they are sophomores, or maybe juniors. But when people around college basketball write about the better guard combos, they are going to include Courtney and Rotnei."
I found someone with basketball IQ at halftime to get an idea of what Fortson might mean to this Arkansas team, expecting some thoughts on those nine assists versus just one turnover. This is what I got from ESPN basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes:
"He's such a good defensive player. I loved the way he played so low to the floor. He's 5-10 so you'd expect him to play low, but he was really low. He was in a defensive stance almost the entire half.
"He can really penetrate and you saw some of that, too. He over penetrated at times, but I think you live with that from a player like Courtney Fortson. He's really good."
I meant to ask Dykes how good these Hogs can be with so many freshmen playing key roles. They are picked dead last in the SEC West by the coaches and the media. That was kinda the topic with Fortson after the game.
"I can tell you we are not last," Fortson said, "not no where are we going to be last.
"You can be good in college basketball with freshmen. I don't know exactly where we are going to be, but it isn't going to be last."
I've got a feeling where Rotnei Clarke and Courtney Fortson are going to be for a few more seasons.
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