College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
Arkansas kicks off our top 25 countdown at No. 25 as we preview the Razorbacks in what they hope is a breakout season under Mike Anderson.
The Arkansas edition is one of dozens available on newsstands everywhere this week.
A streak of eight wins in a nine-game stretch, including road victories at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and No. 17 Kentucky, appeared to have Arkansas on the brink of an NCAA Tournament berth in Mike Anderson’s third season. Then the Razorbacks inexplicably lost by 25 points at Alabama and fell to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, and their would-be NCAA invite evaporated.
That late rejection is fuel for an Arkansas program that has shockingly not been to the NCAAs since 2008.
“I just look at the almosts,” Anderson says. “We were so close. We were just plays away from having a really, really special year. So we take that experience, and this year will be a special year.”
Arkansas boasts a roster loaded with talent, experience and depth, with veterans Ky Madden, Michael Qualls and Anthlon Bell at guard and big men Bobby Portis, Alandise Harris and Moses Kingsley supported by an improved cast of role players. Five players with starting experience and seven who averaged nine minutes or more are back from last season’s 22–12 club.
The Razorbacks led the SEC in assists (15.3 apg), steals (8.4 spg), turnover margin (+5.5) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3), all key elements in Anderson’s full-court style. But they struggled big time on the glass and consistently allowed too many second-chance opportunities.
Anderson understands the time is now to put Arkansas back on the college basketball map.
“This is the first year (in which) most of the guys fit what I’m doing,” Anderson says. “So from that standpoint, this probably will be the best team that we field, from top to bottom.”
No. 25 Arkansas Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-12, 10-8 SEC
Postseason: NIT second round
Last NCAA appearance: 2008
Coach: Mike Anderson (59-39 at Arkansas, 26-26 SEC)
SEC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 32
Portis, who has grown to 6-11, was outstanding as a freshman, but he needs to improve his shooting (.509), rebounding (6.8 rpg) and low-post repertoire to become one of the elite big men in the nation. Portis worked at the Nike big man skills camp and the LeBron James Skills Academy in the summer and plans to have a stronger rebounding presence and upgrade his scoring and defense.
Harris provided toughness and a big-game presence last year, but he didn’t rebound enough (3.3 rpg) and too often settled for jumpers. Kingsley, now a sophomore, is a classic shot-blocking center whose offensive skills should be on the rise.
Jacorey Williams brings energy off the bench, but he has to shoot better than 39.8 percent to earn more time. Transfer Keaton Miles, a defensive standout, and signee Trey Thompson are quality players who will provide depth.
After leading the team in scoring (12.7 ppg) and assists (2.8 apg), Madden should benefit from the addition of point guards Jabril Durham and Anton Beard to allow him to play off the ball more.
Qualls was a SportsCenter regular with a variety of circus dunks, but the Hogs hope his jumper earns him more notoriety this year. Qualls had a horrendous shooting slump to open SEC play and wound up shooting 42.9 percent overall. Bell, a streaky shooter, launched a team-high 151 3-pointers and shot 33.1 percent beyond the arc, a number that must improve for the junior to merit increased playing time. His defense is just adequate.
If this Razorbacks team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament, there will be great frustration in Fayetteville, and for good reason. Portis is a budding superstar who is driven to excel, and there are plenty of key pieces around him. The backcourt is stocked with veterans who can be distribute the ball, add scoring punch and play the kind of defense Anderson demands. This roster gives Anderson great flexibility.
How well Madden deals his role in the backcourt as the new point guards establish themselves, and whether the mercurial Bell can be a more consistent deep threat will say a lot about how far Arkansas can advance in March. The best Arkansas teams during Anderson’s 17-year tenure as an assistant to Nolan Richardson had strong defense, good rebounding, versatile talents, a few sharpshooters and great grit. If this Razorback team can deliver the grit, the ’14-15 season could be special in Fayetteville.
Keaton Miles, a 6-7 transfer from West Virginia, is a versatile forward who fits Anderson’s fast tempo style. Junior college transfer guard Jabril Durham was a good pickup. He and freshman Anton Beard are true points guards who can take some ball-handling pressure off of Ky Madden. Trey Thompson, a 6-9 forward, should give the Razorbacks a quality frontcourt reserve who can take his time to adjust to the college game.