FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball coach John Pelphrey enters his second season in Fayetteville as mystified about his team's prospects as before his first. His young, talented, inexperienced Razorbacks take on Southeastern Louisiana tonight in Bud Walton Arena.
And once again, Pelphrey isn't sure what to expect.
Back in early November 2007, Pelphrey wondered how the players recruited by former coach Stan Heath would take to his new system, his different style of coaching. He ended up taking that veteran group to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas' third straight trip to the Big Dance and its first tourney win since 1999.
A return to the final 32 of the NCAA Tournament seems unlikely this season, so different unknowns are keeping Pelphrey anxious these days. Six seniors left from last year's team, as did team leader Patrick Beverley, and Pelphrey must break in seven newcomers.
The former Kentucky player and South Alabama coach sat down for an interview with The Morning News earlier this week to discuss his second season and much more. He talked about new challenges, gifted freshmen, junior leaders, golf, family life in Arkansas and even a little politics.
The Morning News: "How do the challenges of this team compare with the challenges you faced last season, and do you almost feel like this is your real first season here?"
John Pelphrey: This is more typical of a first season. It's rare when you come in with six seniors who have been to a couple of NCAA Tournaments. That's unique for a first season. This season is more typical because of having a bunch of new faces, a bunch of guys meeting for the first time. But it is the same in terms of the matter of coaching and the energy we bring on a daily basis. Communicating has to be good because we have a short amount of time to get everything done. The players have to be able to grasp and understand quickly. The biggest thing I've found so far is that last year's guys — even though it was new with all the anxieties that come with a coaching change — they could pick up on schemes and concepts much quicker than this group. Those guys had been coached at this level. It's the first time for a lot of these guys.
TMN: "How much patience do you have to have then?"
JP: "You have to have quite a bit. You have to have patience, but you're also going to have times when you won't tolerate anything. You can't treat it the same all the time. Some days I think I need to be very patient. Other days, I think I need to be very demanding and obviously challenge those guys physically. There's a fine line between running them into the ground and making them tough, but also making sure they're still excited to play basketball."
TMN: "How much are you being tested as a coach then?"
JP: "I think it's going stretch us all and challenge us all. I'd say this is pretty unique for me outside of having gone through a coaching change as a player (at Kentucky) and now a couple times as a coach. This will be my second time as a head coach, but it's different here. I liken it to an expansion team. We've got guys who were our 6, 7, 8 guys last season. We've got them back. Those are our best players now. And then it was like we got a chance to go to the rookie draft and maybe pick guys from other teams who weren't playing. That's kind of what it feels like. But the enthusiasm and the energy from the young players has been incredible. There isn't a situation besides ours in college basketball where you have a chance to come in and grow as much as they're going to grow this year. I think this program is going to grow a lot this year."
TMN: "What are the strengths of this team? What are the weaknesses?"
JP: "We've got to get consistent play out of Mike (Washington) and Stef (Welsh). They have to be a strength. They've had great summers, and they've been put into a leadership role because of Pat (Beverley's) departure. I think that shocked them, as it did all of us. So they're still getting comfortable with that. Their consistency, their effort and attitude are things that will be really important. If we can get that, and we have up until this point in time, that gives us a chance to do some other things. We need the young guards to live up to their billing a little bit. Rotnei (Clarke) and Courtney (Fortson) need to be as good as advertised. Jason (Henry) and Montrell (McDonald) need to exceed expectations. Our frontcourt won't be our strength probably because only Mike has ever bounced a basketball in a college game. It could develop into a strength for us. We hope so. We're going to work for that. Andre (Clark) and Brandon (Moore) and (Michael) Sanchez have to overachieve because they've been put in a situation this year where they probably shouldn't be counted on as much as they're going to have to be."
TMN: "How have Stef and Mike dealt with being thrust into those leadership roles?"
JP: "Well, at first it was tough. No question, Pat was the heart and soul of this team. He was the bully. He was the one guy everyone could hide behind. There's always a tough guy on every team. It was a natural thing for him to communicate and be the hardest worker. That was his demeanor, and it hadn't been these guys' demeanor before Pat left. But I'll tell you what, Mike Washington has really embraced the fact that all those other big guys are gone and it's his time. Stef, I think, has done the same. Mike is maybe a little more consistent on a daily basis with his attitude, and Stef has made great strides, but those guys have made a lot of progress. The real adversity is coming, though, when we start playing games and winning and losing starts to become part of the equation."
TMN: "You've already referred to Courtney and Rotnei as ‘Fire and Ice.' Why do you think they will work so well together?"
JP: "They are what the other one is not. You start with Courtney, and he's physical, tough, athletic. He has an ability to beat his guy whenever he wants and get two defenders on him. He has a great ability to make other players around him better. That's a gift. He's also a hard-nosed, nasty defender. He has the opportunity to be disruptive with his defense. He's a capable 3-point shooter, but that's not his strength. Rotnei is a young guy who has stayed in the gym all his life and basically perfected a skill. The (3-point) line going back has no bearing on him whatsoever. He shoots like a pro shoots. From a college standpoint, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who shoots it better. He has just worked too hard. The footwork is too good. The fundamentals are too good. The high-release. Really, it's remarkable the way he shoots it for a kid that age. You very rarely find a guy like him who is that gifted. If I was coaching against him, I wouldn't let him get a shot off past half-court. He's a game-changer. So together, they have a chance to work with each other very well, and that's exciting for the future. I think sometimes people get a little carried away with Rot and don't think he can do other things. He's a great passer. He's got very good skill level with his ball-handling, and he's bigger. He's not Travis Ford or Teddy Dupay where he's 5-foot-9."
TMN: "What was your first offseason as Arkansas coach like?"
JP: "It was very similar to the first spring. I said when I got the job it was the most busy time, the most consuming time, and it seemed like that again this year. Maybe it was because of the amount of guys we lost, then the loss of Patrick. It was just non-stop recruiting. We used all 12 official visits, which doesn't happen that often. And then recruiting in the state with all the younger guys, it was very, very busy this spring. It's a great time for the state of Arkansas, and we want to make sure we do our job and get guys from Arkansas to come here. We also started a foundation (Pel's Pals). We had summer camps. Our family got our house finished. Even the slow months for us were very hectic."
TMN: "What is your favorite part of the job?"
JP: "There's nothing to it that I don't like. Let's work it backwards. I'm very humbled to obviously be here. I understand what this place is because of my relationship playing for Coach (Eddie) Sutton and playing against Coach (Nolan) Richardson. I know how good it can be from a professional standpoint. I'm a huge Coach (Frank) Broyles fan. I'm excited to work with Jeff Long and what he's going to do for the Razorbacks. But there is such a comfort level here on a daily basis for me and Tracy living here in Fayetteville and in this state. We really identify with these people. The passion of the people of the state for what they do in their personal lives and then for the Razorbacks, it's how I grew up. I understand it. Driving through the Ozarks this fall has just been unbelievable. We went out of town for a few days, and it reminded me of going through the mountains in Kentucky when I was a kid growing up. The drive from here to Fort Smith is just like going up to Mountain Parkway. I know if I was working somewhere in a metropolitan area, like Seton Hall or St. John's, I would not enjoy that. For me here, it's so much more here."
TMN: "You played in the LPGA event pro-am with former Arkansas golfer Stacy Lewis. How was that, and how was your golf game this summer?
JP: "My golf game was not as good as it has been. My wife will deny this completely, but I didn't get a chance to play as much as I'd like to. I'm a three-month golfer anyway. It was very enjoyable to play with Stacy, and Bobby Petrino was in that group, as well. He was gracious with his time. He played in our (Pel's Pals) event and then the next day we played up at the LPGA. I thanked him profusely for being so generous with his time. That's his only down time really. But Stacy was great. I remember watching her in the U.S. Open, and she was leading the last day. I was sitting there watching on TV, and I said to Tracy, ‘If she wins this, I'll be playing with a U.S. Open champion.' I found myself rooting for her. I also had a chance to meet her once before. What a cool kid she is, person she is. For her to be a Razorback and to be that good, and then to be such an incredible representative for all us, I was so impressed by her. I'm a big Stacy Lewis fan."
TMN: "How much did you get into the presidential election this year?"
JP: "I got into it a lot there around the two conventions. After watching (Barack) Obama's deal there, it was pretty clear he would be real tough to beat. I thought the Republicans had no chance after that. And then it was interesting to see when they announced (Sarah) Palin, and wondering how that was going to go. Then she speaks at the other convention, and it was like, ‘Whoa, that was pretty impressive.' You see more about (John) McCain's background, and no matter your affiliation, you have to have respect for what he's been through for our country. I can't imagine even five minutes of captivity. After all that, I was like, ‘I have no idea who's going to win this thing.' After that week, it was impossible to figure out. It's such a hard deal for all of us to sift through all of the information. Earlier in history, you just read a paper or listened to the radio. Now there's TV, the Internet. I found it to be almost overwhelming to figure out how to decide about all of this stuff."
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA AT ARKANSAS
WHEN: 7:05 p.m.
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena
RADIO: KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KUOA-FM 105.3; KUOA-AM 1290
COACHES: Southeastern Louisiana, Jim Yarbrough; Arkansas, John Pelphrey
PROBABLE ARKANSAS STARTERS: Courtney Fortson, G; Rotnei Clarke, G; Stefan Welsh, G; Michael Washington, F; Michael Sanchez, F
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