clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

SEC Hoops Preview Series: Arkansas

To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Arkansas, where the return of Bobby Portis has the Razorbacks poised for a big year.

The pressure's on.
The pressure's on.
Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the twelfth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 3rd in the conference.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

Arkansas was once one of the SEC's marquee programs, winning a national title in 1994 and making it back to the title game in 1995, but Nolan Richardson was ultimately forced out after a few subpar years and the Hogs fell on hard times.  Since Richardson left in 2002, Arkansas has made just three NCAA appearances; neither Stan Heath nor John Pelphrey was able to turn Arkansas into a consistent winner.

Mike Anderson, formerly an assistant under Richardson, turned UAB and Missouri into winners before being hired at Arkansas in 2011.  In three years, Anderson hasn't made the NCAA Tournament, but while the wins totals (18 in 2012, 19 in 2013, 22 in 2014) haven't necessarily shown it, Arkansas has consistently gotten better in three years under Anderson.  Ken Pomeroy's ratings tell a different story, with the Razorbacks going from 132nd in the country in Anderson's first year to 79th in 2013 and 52nd last year.  So, too, does average victory margin: +2.1 in 2012, +4.9 in 2013, +8.8 in 2014.

That last number shows why Arkansas could be on the verge of big success this year.  So, too, does another number: 64 percent, the percentage of minutes that return from last year's team.  How about a third number?  12 -- that's where sophomore Bobby Portis is projected to go in the 2015 NBA Draft (per nbadraft.net.)

Yes, this Arkansas team is deep, experienced, and talented.  If anybody is going to threaten Kentucky and Florida for SEC supremacy -- and, of course, it's not a given that anybody will -- this would be the team.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com

Losses
  • Coty Clarke (22.1 mpg, 9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); graduated
  • Fred Gulley (18.3 mpg, 3.9 ppg, 1.9 apg); graduated
  • Mardracus Wade (14.7 mpg, 3.9 ppg, 0.9 apg); graduated
  • Kikko Haydar (12.3 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg); graduated
  • Rickey Scott (8.6 mpg, 2.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg); graduated
  • DeQuavious Wagner (8 games, 4.6 mpg, 1.1 ppg, 0.8 apg); transfer/Angelo State
Starting Five
  • PG Rashad Madden (6'5", 180 Sr., Lepanto, AR)
  • SG Michael Qualls (6'6", 210 Jr., Shreveport, LA)
  • SF Alandise Harris (6'6", 237 Sr., Little Rock, AR)
  • PF Keaton Miles (6'7", 217 Jr., Dallas, TX); transfer/West Virginia
  • C Bobby Portis (6'11", 242 Soph., Little Rock, AR)
Top Reserves
  • G Jabril Durham (6'1", 190 Jr., DeSoto, TX); #4 JC PG and #18 overall JC
  • G Anthlon Bell (6'3", 188 Jr., Memphis, TN)
  • G Nick Babb (6'4", 185 Fr., Arlington, TX); #44 SG and #167 overall
  • G Anton Beard (6'0", 195 Fr., North Little Rock, AR); #16 PG and #79 overall
  • C Moses Kingsley (6'10", 230 Soph., Abuja, Nigeria)
Bench
  • F Trey Thompson (6'9", 270 Fr., Madison, AR); #63 PF and #246 overall
  • F Jacorey Williams (6'8", 218 Jr., Birmingham, AL)
Sitting Out
  • G Dusty Hannahs (6'3", 208 Jr., Little Rock, AR); transfer/Texas Tech

As always, these projections are a best guess, but in Arkansas's case, the distinctions between starters, reserves, and benchwarmers aren't particularly important.  Last season, Bobby Portis played more minutes than any Razorback but only averaged 27 minutes a night, while even the relatively little-used Jacorey Williams appeared in 30 games and averaged 9.2 mpg.  Basically, Mike Anderson is going to play pretty much everybody on his roster; indeed, per Ken Pomeroy, Arkansas ranked sixth in the country in bench minutes last season.

The reason for that is fairly obvious: the Razorbacks are going to play pressure defense and get up and down the floor.  Last year, Arkansas averaged 71.2 possessions a game in SEC play (most in the conference) and forced turnovers on 21.9 percent of opposing possessions (also most in the conference.)  More than most coaches, Anderson is reliant on having "his" guys on the roster to fit his style of play, which partially explains why it's taken longer than expected for Anderson to turn Arkansas around: in his first three years, his roster was still littered with holdovers from the John Pelphrey era who may or may not have been good fits for the system.

This season, though, the only holdover left is senior Rashad Madden.  Madden isn't necessarily an ideal fit for Anderson on the defensive end (only averaging 0.8 steals per game last year), but he did shoot 40 percent from three and averaged 2.8 assists a game last year.  While not necessarily a "true" point guard, Madden can fit the bill as more of a scoring point, which worked pretty well last year splitting time with true point guard Fred Gulley.

With Gulley gone, Anderson has a couple of point guards available.  Jabril Durham averaged 21.2 ppg and 6.7 apg at Seminole State JC last year, while also notching 75 steals; Durham could handle the point and allow Madden to play off the ball more if Anderson wants.  Freshman Anton Beard is quick off the dribble and has a nice lefty shooting stroke; how much he plays will be determined by whether he gives Anderson what he wants on the defensive end.

Arkansas's slow start to SEC play last year roughly coincided with a shooting slump by junior Michael Qualls; through the first seven games of SEC play, Qualls shot 17-for-69 from the floor and 6-for-28 from three.  It probably wasn't a coincidence that Arkansas went 2-5 in those games.  It didn't really help matters that fellow junior Anthlon Bell shot 7-for-27 from three during that stretch.  Basically, in Qualls and Bell, Anderson has a pair of shooters who can be deadly accurate but also in the past have been prone to lengthy slumps.  Bell shot 33.1 percent from three on the season but really came on late in the year, with four double-figure scoring games in the last eight.  This year, Anderson also adds freshman Nick Babb to the mix, who isn't purely a shooter but also can get to the basket.

In Alandise Harris and Keaton Miles, Anderson has a pair of forwards who are pretty adept at doing what he wants: blocking shots and collecting turnovers.  He might not play both on the floor together, instead opting for a smaller lineup.  Of the two, Miles is the better rebounder.  Jacorey Williams is also available here, but hasn't played much in two years at Arkansas.

Possibly an important question up front is whether Portis and fellow sophomore Moses Kingsley can coexist.  Last year, Portis and Kingsley swapped time as the safety valve on defense, but Kingsley, who averaged 1.5 blocks a game in just 11.5 minutes a night, could be a game-changing defensive player.  Portis (1.0 spg, 1.6 bpg) is likewise an adept defender at 6'11" while also providing plenty of offensive punch; however, this defense could be scary good -- even in the halfcourt -- if Anderson can get both on the floor at the same time.  As it stands, though, Anderson will have a fine defender at the back end of the press at all times.

Arkansas did rank as one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country last year, and while this isn't a huge concern -- after all, the whole goal of Anderson's defense is for the opponent not to attempt a shot -- it does make for an area of improvement.  This actually had less to do with the bigs, as Portis and Kingsley both ranked as pretty good individual rebounders, and more to do with the guards and wings, who were frequently away from the basket in the press and thus were unusually poor at rebounding the ball.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/7 Central Oklahoma (exh.)
11/13 Pittsburg State (exh.)
11/16 Alabama State
11/19 Wake Forest
11/21 Delaware State
11/25 at SMU
11/28 North Texas
11/30 Iona
12/4 at Iowa State
12/7 at Clemson
12/13 Dayton
12/20 SE Missouri State
12/22 Milwaukee
12/28 Northwestern State
1/3 Utah Valley
Conference Home-and-Home

Tennessee, Ole Miss, Missouri, South Carolina, Mississippi State

Conference Home

Vanderbilt, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU

Conference Road

Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Kentucky

Arkansas's non-conference schedule looks pretty good, with three road games against SMU, Iowa State, and Clemson, and a home game with Dayton mixed among the usual mid-majors.  What's more, other than MEAC outfit Delaware State and the SWAC's Alabama State, the mid-majors on the schedule are actually decent teams and won't be RPI killers.

On the other hand, the pressure is going to be on Arkansas to pick up a marquee win or two in non-conference play because it doesn't look like the SEC schedule is going to present too many opportunities.  Playing home-and-homes against the fivesome of Tennessee, Ole Miss, Missouri, South Carolina and Mississippi State should be good for padding the conference record, but none of those games are likely to impress the Selection Committee.  And given Arkansas's usual struggles away from Fayetteville, drawing Florida and Kentucky both on the road is unequivocally a bad thing.  With SMU and Iowa State also being away from home, Arkansas will have to figure out how to win on the road -- which, to be fair, they seemed to do toward the end of last season.

Outlook

There's really no question that this is going to be the best team Mike Anderson has had since he's been in Fayetteville.  At least on paper, there's too much talent here for Arkansas to struggle, and unlike in years past Anderson isn't dealing with talented players who nonetheless are poor fits for his system.

The question is, how good can this team be?  Toward the end of last season, Arkansas started to resemble the Nolan Richardson teams from the 1990s in some ways, with a defense that forced a ton of turnovers and several deadeye shooters who could hammer teams at the other end.  But that team largely wasn't present as Arkansas slogged through the first half of the SEC schedule with a 3-6 record, and it's an open question whether the team can carry over its late surge to this season.

In any case, we know that Anderson has 10 or 11 bodies that he can throw at opposing teams in successive waves, ensuring that there's no respite from the constant pressure.  And when the defense is really working, Arkansas's offense does as well, with all those turnovers leading to easy buckets at the other end.

The other open question here is how much of a leash will Anderson have if this year's team slips up?  While he's shown at both UAB and Missouri that he can put together a winning team, and he does have the connection to the Richardson era, at some point Razorback fans are going to want results.  If this year's team doesn't make the tournament, Anderson might start feeling some heat.