Happy New Year! By and large, those that know me know I am a huge Razorback fan in all sports. The 2000's have been a decade marked by transition and rebuilding among the many Razorback sports programs, especially the major sports, Football, Basketball, Baseball, as well as the retirement of legendary athletic director Frank Broyles. That is another topic that could take up several blogs and will be touched on at some point.
Today I would like to wax poetic about the rebuilding job assigned to John Pelphrey and how his task has turned out to monumentally bigger than the task so successfully undertaken by football coach Bobby Petrino. Pelphrey is in his fourth year, Petrino is in his third. The past two seasons for Pelphrey have produced a losing record. The past two seasons for Petrino have resulted in consecutive bowl appearances, Arkansas' first BCS appearance ever, and a return to national prominence significance.
There has been much unrest in Razorback-land over the state of the basketball program and that has shown itself in the low attendance numbers over the past few seasons. 5,000 and 6,000 numbers have become commonplace in a stadium that seats almost 20,000 and when first built, had an extensive waiting list for season tickets. Razorback fans, where are you? It's time to get your butts back in the seats because the bandwagon is going to fill up quickly under THIS coach. Here's why:
1) Housecleaning-John Pelphrey inherited a mess. A much bigger mess than most people know about. Under former coach Stan Heath, discipline was an afterthought to winning basketball games. He recruited several athletes that could play, but considered themselves bigger than the team or the program. Offshoots of this atmosphere included poor academics, poor class attendance, drug use, and other criminal behavior by the players. Heath did as well as he and his staff could trying to control their team, but were ultimately unsuccessful. When Pelphrey took over, the majority of the team was academically insufficient and in danger of being ineligible. It has take multiple suspensions, intense focus on academics, and team/character building to dig out of the hole that was partially dug by his predecessor, and partially dug by the current staff as it affects API, grades, and students transferring. Without placing blame in just one area, the staff has turned the numbers around off the court and the results are easy to see. This team is a TEAM. One that plays together, and yes, plays for their COACH. Is every player going to be happy 100% of the time? No, and its not realistic to think that they would be. But as one that has attended games and talked to other fans that have, the atmosphere around this team is markedly different than at any point in the past four years. This only portends good things to come.
2. Player development. Does anyone remember Delvon Johnson's averages last season? 2.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and .5 blocked shots. This season? 10 points, 9 boards and 4 blocks per game. He's a completely different player. Julysses Nobles? 4 points, and 2 assists last season, 9 points and almost 4 assists. Glenn Bryant is better, Marcus Britt is better. Why are these players important? They are the supporting cast. No one would argue that Rotnei Clarke and Marshawn Powell are the two best players on the team. Clarke has been playind as good as last year and Powell looks to be back to full speed after breaking his foot in the off-season. The players mentioned before have all raised their level of play to that of legitimate SEC players. And the team is peforming better for it. I just finished watching Arkansas "upset" Tennessee at home in both teams SEC opener. Did Arkansas play to the level when they were nationally ranked and significant? NO. Are they playing better than last season? ABSOLUTELY. The difference? In this game, it was Nobles and Johnson. Both had monster games as did Rotnei Clarke. But the first two are better BECAUSE THEY HAVE BEEN COACHED UP. It's obvious to anyone that knows basketball.
3. Recruiting. Arkansas' recruiting class for next season is ranked as high as number 3 in the country by one ranking service. It is inarguably made up of elite players. Three things attract elite level players. 1) Opportunity for playing time, 2) Opportunity to play in a program/system that will get you ready to play at the next level and 3) Coaching Staff. That's it...bottom line. Many people have made the argument that the "Big Three" of next year's recruiting class is coming to Arkansas because they are from Arkansas. That's simply not true. Each of the players from Arkansas has stated they are coming to Arkansas because of John Pelphrey. The two players from out-of-state echoed that same sentiment. They want to play for Pelphrey and they want to play winning basketball. AND THEY CAN PLAY. I was fortunate enough to see some of them play in person over the holidays and the future is bright for Razorback basketball.
As of today, Arkansas is 11-3 overall, 1-0 in the SEC with that one win coming against an SEC East team that we were supposed to lose to. Yes, the loss to Texas this week was inexcusable both in size of loss and in effort put forth by the players. But one loss does not a season make...as one win does not either. This team has a chance to win the SEC West this season and WILL play in the postseason this year. The SEC is down, there is no question about that. 20 wins in the SEC may not guarantee a trip to the NCAA tournament. If we finish as successfully as I think we will, we might need help to get to the big dance. Looking in my crystal ball, this writer forsees a record at the end of the year of 21-9, 10-6 in the SEC and co-champs of the SEC West. Will this get us to the tournament? I hope so! Will we be better next year under THIS coaching staff? Absolutely. So find your seat on the bandwagon...if you wait until next year, there may not be room!