The University of Arkansas basketball team got better at about 2 p.m. on Tuesday when one of the nation's best playmakers got the all clear.
That is when Razorback head coach John Pelphrey got word that sophomore point guard Courtney Fortson would be making his season debut after dealing with "personal issues" that forced him to miss the season's first 14 games.
Fortson made an instant impact with 19 points and 7 assists – albeit coming in a 96-85 loss to No. 2 Texas Tuesday night before a season-high xx,xxx at Bud Walton Arena – and then made a brief appearance in the media room.
"First off, I want to thank my teammates, my fans, the school, the administration for sticking behind me through this rough situation," Fortson said. "Most of all, I want to thank Coach Pelphrey for being, you know, outside basketball, being there in my personal life. Coach (Damon) Jones, Coach (Tom) Ostrom, my mom. I owe it all to you all. Thank you all for letting me come back and letting me be part of the Razorbacks. That's it. Thank you.""
Pelphrey has taken a lot of criticism for not talking about specifics of Fortson's absence, but it became apparent as time went on that he was limited by privacy rules what he could disclose to fans and media.
He did express his happiness that Fortson was back – first via a UA press release in the afternoon.
"We are pleased that Courtney has done the things necessary for him to incorporate basketball fully back into his life," Pelphrey said. "In the past few months, Courtney has worked hard to address personal issues and meet objectives to facilitate his return to active competition.
"Our primary focus with Courtney, and all of our student-athletes, is to assist them in realizing their full potential as individuals," Pelphrey added. "This includes developing them athletically, academically and socially.
"We will continue to provide all of our student-athletes the support and appropriate resources to assist them in that process," Pelphrey continued. "All of our student-athletes will continue to be expected to represent the University of Arkansas with integrity. As with all Razorback student-athletes, Courtney must continue to meet the expectations of our athletic department to remain a member of the Razorback program."
Pelphrey had always referred to Fortson's return as being one that would be accomplished after a plan was put in place when the player asked for help with the aforementioned personal issues.
"We talked about all along it's not really one thing," Pelphrey said. "There's a plan in place. There's certain things he's got to do whether it be academically and other things. All along the way. There was a point in time where he wasn't practicing. We brought him back to practice and got him in with the guys. Obviously he had academic things that he had to accomplish. There's been constant pieces of information that we were waiting on to get. There wasn't just one facet for Courtney. It was a plan. It was a program."
Fortson, who averaged 14.8 points and nearly six assists last season, was 5-of-16 from the field, 2 of 7 from 3-point range while nailing 7 of his 9 free throws, grabbing 3 rebounds, having a couple of steals and having 6 turnovers.
He was cheered by the crowd upon his introduction and each time he left or re-entered the game.
"Tonight I thought he made it easier on us because of the amount of pressure they were going to apply to us," Pelphrey said. "He is very good at penetrating. Some of those he made, I don't know if there is anybody on our team that can make those. The thing about Courtney is that I love his toughness, he has the ability to play fast and finish plays, he is very, very difficult to keep in front and you are going to have to figure out what you are going to do with him off pick and rolls. He has the ability to get easy baskets for the frontcourt players and easy baskets for the perimeter guys. He is not one-dimensional. On the other side of it, he can be a playmaker on defense."
It was clear that his teammates were thrilled he was back – as evidenced by the following quote by sophomore Rotnei Clarke, who had a game-high 24 points in the loss.
"Knowing he's going to be playing with us gets everybody in another gear," Clarke said. "And I know it gets me in another gear, personally. … Obviously he does a lot of things for our basketball team and I know he opens me up with a lot of opportunities to score, too. He does that for everyone else. It's really good to have him back playing with us."
Freshman power forward Marshawn Powell, who had 18 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals, was also a clear beneficiary of Fortson being on the court.
"The tempo of the game changes when he's in there," Powell said. "… It's a different game when he's in the game."
Fortson was inserted right into the starting line-up.
"I think we all recognize the fact that Courtney is eligible to play, it's kind of his spot," Pelphrey said.
Clarke had 16 points, Powell 12 and Fortson 10 as the Razorbacks battled the Longhorns to a 48-48 deadlock at intermission.
"Obviously Courtney Fortson is a very talented player," Texas Coach Rick Barnes said. "The first half, we gave him way too many shots at the rim. He went by us a few times like we weren't even there. You've got to give credit. I thought he handled himself extremely well ."
Texas forward Gary Johnson talked after the game about how Fortson had exposed a Longhorn weakness with his talent.
"They exposed a big weakness," Johnson said. "Defending ball screens."
The Texas players noted they were not surprised to see Fortson play he has stayed in contact with his high school teammate and injured Longhorn sophomore Varez Ward (ruptured right quadriceps tendon).
"He kind of let us know that (Fortson) might be playing," Texas center Dexter Pittman said. "So we weren't surprised."
Pelphrey, who started the season with just 6 scholarship players available, now has 10 ready to play as well as walk-on Steven Cox.
Only power forward Michael Sanchez (plantar fasciitis) not being available is keeping it from being a full roster.
The Razorbacks have nine days off to incorporate Fortson further into the mix before they open SEC play a week from Thursday at Mississippi State.
Clarke is excited about the future now that Fortson is back.
"Knowing he's back gives us a lot of momentum going back into SEC play and that's what we really need," Clarke said. "He gets us amped up just seeing him out there."
The Return Of Courtney
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