How Did We Get Here?
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
By almost any measure, Arkansas in 2014-15 had its best season since Nolan Richardson was on the sidelines -- which is, well, what his former assistant Mike Anderson was brought in to do. The Razorbacks won 27 games, the most since the 1994-95 team won 32; they finished the regular season in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1998-99; they reached the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 1999; and they were unequivocally the second-best team in the SEC behind Kentucky.
Now, the challenge is maintaining it. And that's going to be difficult after Arkansas's offseason. To recap: seniors Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris, who combined to start 56 games, are gone. So, too, are Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, both of whom declared for the NBA Draft.
If the losses had stopped there, Arkansas would still be rebuilding, but they would at least have some hope. But they didn't. Backup Nick Babb, who played sparingly as a freshman, transferred to Iowa State. Jacorey Williams, projected to start, was one of three players implicated in a forgery case over the summer and wound up getting booted from the team. Four-star recruit Ted Kapita failed to qualify and decided to play pro ball in France instead.
The end result is that Arkansas now has, at most, ten scholarship players available -- and one of those, Anton Beard, is implicated in the same case as the departed Williams and may not play for Arkansas again. Two more are freshmen, and one of the freshmen reclassified to arrive in college a year ahead of schedule. Two are transfers who have never played a minute at Arkansas -- and one of those transfers was a role player for one of the worst teams in Division 1. Two more players played a grand total of 81 minutes -- combined -- in 2014-15.
Basically, Anderson put all his eggs in the 2015 basket, and now comes the crash. It's made even worse by the fact that Arkansas's success on the recruiting trail in 2013 (the Portis class) hasn't kept up. After that class, ranked #13 in the country by 247sports.com, Arkansas's last two recruiting classes have ranked #38 and #87. And potentially two players from the 2014 class won't be playing for Arkansas this season. And while one of the two recruits this year is a four-star player, Mike Anderson needed more than that because of the demands of his system. Depth is a virtual necessity: since Anderson's first season in Fayetteville, he's had at least ten different players each year average ten minutes per game.
And this season, depending on how Anton Beard's case shakes out, he might have ten players on the roster -- total. How's this going to work again?
Arkansas had so much success with Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" system that you honestly have to wonder why they ever got away from it. Anderson's "Fastest 40 Minutes" system is not exactly the same as his mentor's, but the basic principles are the same: full-court press to create turnovers, which leads to easy buckets, and relying on depth to apply constant pressure to wear down the opposition. The bad news for Arkansas last year was that if they weren't turning you over, their defense was otherwise pretty bad: the Hogs ranked 12th in the SEC in defensive effective FG% and last in defensive rebounding. That became an issue when the Razorbacks ran into turnover-averse teams like Iowa State, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Wofford (whom Arkansas just barely squeaked by in the first round of the tournament.) But most of the time, opponents couldn't get out of their own way when confronted with the Arkansas press. The offense, like the defense, was fairly pedestrian other than when it came to turnovers.
Of course -- last year was a completely different team than this year's edition. How Anderson handles the transition will determine if Arkansas has any staying power as a good (if not elite) program or if 2014-15 represented a flash in the pan -- though it's almost a given that the Razorbacks will be taking a pretty big step back this season.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Nick Babb||4.8||0.7||0.8||0.5||0.1||0.2||0.3||transfer/Iowa State|
|Michael Qualls||30.0||15.6||5.2||1.6||0.5||0.9||4.8||declared for NBA Draft|
|Jabril Durham||Sr.||6'1"||185||0.88||3* (#4 JC PG)||9.8||1.7||0.8||1.4||0.0||0.3||0.4|
|Anthlon Bell||Sr.||6'3"||185||0.8463||3* (#49 SG)||18.2||7.8||1.2||1.4||0.1||0.6||1.7|
|Dusty Hannahs||Jr.||6'3"||203||22.1||7.7||1.4||1.3||0.0||0.4||1.8||2013-14 (Texas Tech)|
|Manuale Watkins||Jr.||6'3"||205||14.2||2.7||2.1||1.1||0.0||1.1||1.3||former walk-on|
|Anton Beard||Soph.||6'0"||195||0.9269||4* (#25 PG)||19.1||5.8||1.9||1.5||0.0||1.0||1.7||suspended indefinitely|
|Jimmy Whitt||Fr.||6'4"||173||0.974||4* (#19 SG)|
On paper, at least, the backcourt could wind up being the strength of this team -- which honestly isn't saying a whole lot considering the issues in the frontcourt.
And, well, a lot of the potential strength in the backcourt assumes that Anton Beard plays -- hardly a safe assumption given that he's looking at nine felony counts; this certainly isn't the usual "college kids doing dumb stuff" that merits missing a couple of meaningless November games. Without Beard, the Razorbacks are looking at some combination of Jabril Durham and Manuale Watkins -- the former a JUCO transfer with a decent shooting stroke but little ability to create off the dribble. Watkins, the son of assistant coach Melvin Watkins, is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship, and who functions as a defensive specialist but is limited on the offensive end, and both had a penchant for committing turnovers last season. Either way, Arkansas is not in very good hands at the point (at least on offense) without Beard.
The wings are going to be a (relative) strength for Arkansas, as here the Razorbacks have two players with significant Division 1 experience and also Jimmy Whitt, who's a four-star recruit. Anthlon Bell is a streaky shooter who nonetheless is Arkansas's leading returning scorer and possibly the best player of the returnees. Bell shot 35.1 percent on threes last season (while taking 185 threes to just 72 twos) but his scoring tended to come in bunches: he had 13 double-figure games and yet was held scoreless on six occasions. Still, Mike Anderson expects Bell to take on a leadership role as he is the only senior on the team who's been with the program for four years.
Speaking of streaky, Texas Tech transfer Dusty Hannahs once made eight consecutive three-pointers. Hannahs is a similar player to Bell, albeit with a bit more consistency and a bit less three-pointer happy in his two years at Texas Tech; he's also a career 89 percent free throw shooter, suggesting that he might be capable of shooting better than 37 percent from three as he did for the Red Raiders. If you're going to depend on streaky shooters, you're probably better off having more than one as Anderson can simply ride the hot hand on a given night.
If Beard doesn't work his way back into good standing, Jimmy Whitt may wind up playing the point. While a good shooter, Whitt has more athleticism than Bell or Hannahs and can create off the dribble -- though he's a much more natural two-guard than a point. Lorenzo "Doobie" Jenkins signed with Arkansas at the last minute and, as a reclassifier (and a three-star recruit according to Rivals) is less likely to be a big contributor as a freshman, but he does give Anderson a needed extra body for the press.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Bobby Portis||29.8||17.5||8.8||1.1||1.4||1.0||6.1||declared for NBA Draft|
|Jacorey Williams||16.1||4.9||2.8||1.1||0.4||0.7||0.9||dismissed from team|
|Willy Kouassi||Sr.||6'10"||230||0.9169||3* (#13 C)||19.3||4.6||5.0||0.1||1.3||0.1||0.0||2014-15 at Kennesaw State|
|Keaton Miles||Sr.||6'7"||212||0.867||3* (#43 SF)||3.0||0.4||0.4||0.1||0.0||0.1||0.0|
|Moses Kingsley||Jr.||6'10"||230||0.9827||4* (#4 C)||10.8||3.6||2.4||0.3||1.1||0.4||1.3|
|Trey Thompson||Soph.||6'9"||260||0.847||3* (#64 PF)||2.4||0.4||0.4||0.1||0.1||0.1||0.0|
|Dustin Thomas||Jr.||6'7"||225||0.9021||3* (#31 PF)||sitting out 2015-16|
There's some size up front, but not a ton of experience or depth. Mike Anderson generally prefers to play a traditional two-guard look (albeit with one guard having length typical of a classic three) but the absence of any real depth in the frontcourt means that he may have to play three guards a lot by default.
Moses Kingsley is probably the best player up front and the only one who's played much (if at all) for Arkansas. Kingsley showed last year that he could at least do a reasonable impersonation of Bobby Portis on the defensive end, even if he's light years behind Portis on offense. If Kingsley can develop into an offensive force as well, that will take Arkansas a long way.
He'd better, or else Arkansas will probably have no offensive threat in the paint. Willy Kouassi, who transferred from Kennesaw State (after starting his career at Auburn), is even less polished than Kingsley -- and keep in mind that last year he was playing 19 minutes a night for one of the worst teams in Division 1. How exactly that translates into being a productive SEC player is beyond me, but Anderson likely brought him in just to have an extra body in the paint.
Keaton Miles and Trey Thompson played sparingly last season, but will see their minutes increase this year almost by default: after all, Arkansas has to have five players on the floor at all times and Mike Anderson doesn't seem like the type to scrap a system he's been using his entire career.
|11/26||vs. Georgia Tech (NIT Tip-Off)|
|11/27||vs. Villanova/Stanford (NIT Tip-Off)|
|12/4||at Wake Forest|
|12/19||vs. Mercer (North Little Rock)|
|1/2||at Texas A&M|
|2/9||at Mississippi State|
The non-conference schedule looks like that of, well, a rebuilding team. It's perhaps the bare-minimum schedule that is acceptable to the league office, with power-conference bottom feeders (Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Texas Tech) mixed in with a steady diet of mid- and low-major teams of varying quality. With this schedule, Arkansas could be a fairly terrible team and still enter January with eight or nine wins just because there aren't a lot of scary teams on the schedule. But given the state of the roster, the NCAA Tournament is a longshot anyway, so Anderson is probably not too concerned about the strength of schedule numbers.
The SEC schedule is a mixed bag: while the Hogs do draw contenders LSU and Texas A&M twice, they also draw the rebuilding outfits at Tennessee and Missouri twice as well. The Razorbacks also draw a likely improved Mississippi State team twice.
For Mike Anderson, 2015-16 is about winning on the recruiting trail as much as it is about winning on the basketball court, because the latter doesn't seem all that likely. Even if you assume Anderson figures out a way to work around the lack of any real depth, the top-level talent on this roster isn't all that great. Moses Kingsley could develop an offensive game, Anthlon Bell or Dusty Hannahs could become more consistent, Anton Beard could actually, you know, play (or Jimmy Whitt could be an acceptable option at the point)... and, well, all of that might get Arkansas up to around .500 in the conference. And that's the best case scenario.
The worst case scenario? Beard doesn't play for Arkansas ever again, a couple of players get hurt, and Anderson is holding walk-on tryouts not to get extra bodies for practice, but because he intends on playing them fifteen minutes a night. In that scenario, Arkansas can count themselves lucky if they avoid the basement of the SEC. Oh, and five-star recruit Malik Monk, who's not only from Arkansas but happens to be the younger brother of Marcus Monk, signs with Kentucky.
From the vantage point of the preseason, it's far easier to envision a complete collapse than it is to see the best case scenario. Looking at this roster just leads to the conclusion that this will be a long season in Fayetteville. The pick is 13th, and frankly, it's much easier to see the Razorbacks doing worse than that than a .500 finish in the league.