Razorbacks Can't Wait To Start Improving

FAYETTEVILLE — Five minutes after Arkansas' season ended Thursday night, freshman point guard Courtney Fortson sat slumped in a chair in the Razorbacks' St. Pete Times Forum locker room.

His voice barely rose above a whisper as he discussed Arkansas' 73-58 loss to Florida. When the conversation turned to next season, however, Fortson hunched forward and spoke louder.

"I can't wait to get back in the gym and work hard," said Fortson, a Southeastern Conference all-freshman team selection. "We just have to get back in the gym ASAP, as soon as we get back home. We think we can have a great season next year, but we have to work hard to get there."

In the aftermath of their draining 14-16 season, the Razorbacks preferred to discuss the future far more than analyze the past.

Arkansas coach John Pelphrey sounded eager to build on the few positives he could identify. He also stressed his commitment to recruiting during the spring signing period, hoping to add to a 2009-10 class that already numbers three players.

"Obviously, we need to play better and we need to get more pieces," Pelphrey said. "But there is a level of toughness coming back for us, for showing up, competing and putting yourself in a situation where you've got a chance.

"And we understand the outcome is not what it needs to be."

The first order of business for Pelphrey could be convincing 6-foot-9 junior forward Michael Washington to stick around for his senior season. Washington, who blossomed into a second-team all-SEC performer, is projected as a possible second-round NBA Draft pick by several mock drafts.

But after Thursday's game, Washington had two chances to solidly state he'd return to Arkansas for the 2009-10 season. And twice, Washington passed up opportunities to quiet the speculation.

When asked in the Arkansas locker room whether he planned on finishing out his collegiate career, Washington told The Morning News that he hadn't even pondered the subject yet.

"I haven't been thinking about that at all," Washington said. "I've just been thinking about this year and playing basketball."

Moments later, he provided a similarly vague answer at Arkansas' postgame news conference, giving no indication one way or the other.

"I ain't worried about that right now," Washington said. "So basically, I'm just looking forward to just coming back and getting better with my teammates."

Assuming Washington returns to the Razorbacks, they should sport a considerably stronger and more experienced frontcourt.

Arkansas will add at least two frontcourt players next season (both high school seniors) — Marshawn Powell, a bruising 6-7 power forward from Virginia, and Anthony Borden, a 6-10 center from West Memphis. Plus, freshman forwards Michael Sanchez, Andre Clark and Brandon Moore will be a year tougher and smarter.

In the backcourt, Pelphrey will bring in 6-5 junior college guard Jemal Farmer, a Chicago native. Farmer's presence will give him another option along with Fortson, freshman Rotnei Clarke, junior Stefan Welsh and sophomore Marcus Britt.

Pelphrey also must deal with the ongoing saga involving freshman Jason Henry, who was suspended recently for the third time this season.

Clarke said he couldn't wait for the new players to arrive. Before that happens, though, Clarke said the Razorbacks must work on developing better chemistry.

"Growing together as a team is the biggest thing to me," Clarke said. "It seems like it was a little tough with this being the first year we've played together. We got better as the season went along, even though we weren't rewarded every time with a win.

"We did feel like we played good basketball in most of our games, but we just couldn't finish games. We need to be able to sustain play."

Fortson said he realized why the Hogs struggled to develop consistent play.

"I learned that the little things help you win and the little things can make you lose," Fortson said. "Just do the little things right, and you'll get a big result."

Playing with more consistency was first and foremost on Sanchez's mind.

"We've been right there," Sanchez said. "We didn't get smacked out there very often. Coach Pel really harps on us about finishing games, and that's something we really need to concentrate on for next year."

"Really, we've got so many things to work on."

Season Review

The Hogs' Highs and Lows

Arkansas started this season as one of the surprise teams in college basketball under second-year coach John Pelphrey. The Razorbacks were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, yet they won 12 of their first 13 games. They even got to within one spot of being ranked. But the Hogs faltered once SEC play began, and the situation only worsened as the season progressed. While Arkansas' young players finished the season with 15 losses in their last 17 contests, they surely learned plenty of lessons along the way that should help them in 2009-10.

High Points

• Rallying past Southeastern Louisiana 91-87 in overtime: The unthinkable nearly occurred in Arkansas' season-opener. The Razorbacks trailed the Lions 76-70 with 1 minute, 40 seconds to go but somehow fought back, fueled by their freshmen guards. In the final minute of regulation, Rotnei Clarke's 3-pointer and Courtney Fortson's tough driving layup forced the extra period.

• The 10-game winning streak: It all started with Stefan Welsh's last-second 3-pointer on Nov. 26 at South Alabama, which gave Arkansas a thrilling 79-77 win. The Razorbacks then feasted on a bunch of cupcakes before shocking the nation with victories over Oklahoma and Texas during an eight-day span.

• Winning in front of the 1994 title team: With former coach Nolan Richardson and most of Arkansas' only national championship squad in attendance, the Hogs dominated Georgia 89-67. Five players scored in double figures, a rare showing of offensive balance for the Razorbacks as they won for the first time in 31 days.

Low Points

• Recording the worst loss in Bud Walton Arena history: Arkansas had several other low moments previously, including the defeat at Missouri State and the SEC-opening setback to Mississippi State. But the Razorbacks' 73-51 loss to Auburn on Jan. 24 sticks out the most. They went scoreless over the final 6:35 and fell to 0-4 in league play.

• The eight-game losing streak: Arkansas finally notched an SEC victory against Alabama on Jan. 29, but the Razorbacks didn't win again until March 1. The Hogs managed to hold second-half leads in six of the eight defeats, but they couldn't hold on to any of them. They blew an 18-point lead against LSU and a 15-point advantage at Mississippi State.

• Off-the-court issues: The problems began in August, when Arkansas' top returning scorer, Patrick Beverley, was ruled ineligible and left school. Montrell McDonald was suspended and quit the team in December. Senior Marcus Monk was ruled ineligible in January. Pelphrey also handed out plenty of suspensions, disciplining McDonald, Fortson, Jason Henry and Brandon Moore.

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