With the Hogs playing for their first NCAA tournament win of the 21st century tonight (!), it's time to bring in a true Razorback expert: Arkansas Sports 360 editor Jim Harris. If there's an Arkansas sportswriter doing better work than Harris right now we certainly haven't seen it, and unlike certain other prominent local sports editors we could name, his columns are always light on fluff and heavy on interesting insights, analysis and opinions. Thanks very much to Jim for taking the time out of his busy week to answer our questions...now, check out what he has to say about Indiana, this crazy 2008 season and great Hog teams of the past:
1. What do you think of the Hogs' chances against Indiana on Friday? And, if they win that game, how do you think they would fare against North Carolina ?
The Hogs’ chances are excellent if they bring the same game they showed against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. If Kelvin Sampson were still coaching Indiana, the Hoosiers wouldn’t be an eighth seed. But he’s not, and for good reason, and they’re playing now about like a 12th seed under Dan Dakich as interim coach. Nothing is settled there, and the team is having to rely on its two talented stars, Eric Gordon and D.J. White to carry them. Arkansas needs to focus on not letting the mystery guys beat them while trying to stop Gordon and White. They’re going to get theirs.
Arkansas must not let Armon Bassett or Jemarcus Ellis get loose on them in the backcourt, or somebody like Lance Stemler sneak in there and get 12-14 points inside. Let the two guys get their 40-50 and stop the rest. And if Charles Thomas can maintain what we saw the past two weeks, Arkansas should have a good night scoring inside, setting up the guards to deliver the knockout.
Arkansas will unlikely be able to follow that up against North Carolina . The Tar Heels have too many weapons for the Hogs to defend. Their only chance is if North Carolina is flat, and there is no reason for that.
2. What's your take on the Razorbacks' season so far? Have they exceeded your expectations, meet your expectations or disappointed you?
In some ways they disappointed me, because I though that all the hard work this staff put them through in the off season would have truly brought them together as people and good teammates. Instead, with the exception of a couple of people, such as Darian Townes and Weems through the SEC, they seemed to play most of the season divided again, just like they looked under the previous staff. On the plus side, Darian Townes has had a terrific year in both his scoring and his attitude. He got better defensively but had so far to go; still does. His rebounding in the tournament last week was terrific. Every time Pelphrey challenged him, he answered the call. Total opposite of the past. Don’t know where Thomas was all season, but finally when it counts he’s begun to look like the Thomas we saw at times his first three seasons.
Sonny Weems had to carry so much load for so long, and maybe it wore him out late, but his conference season was terrific. He finally looked like the comparison some made with his talents and Ronnie Brewer’s was accurate. His ballhandling was suspect, but his passing skills was never better than in the tournament. Patrick Beverley may have played too much basketball in the summer and was fighting himself for much of the league season. Finally, he has come around.
Gary Ervin has improved down the stretch. I’m not sure what took Stefan Welsh so long to show what he can do, but when Arkansas moved him to a shooting guard for the tournament and allowed him to shoot on the run without worrying about it, he was terrific. His ballhandling is not what it needs to be, as we saw against Georgia . Steven Hill had his moments, none better than beating Tennessee , plus his defense late against Vanderbilt in the tournament. I think one more season – having redshirted earlier – and we might have seen his potential realized. Michael Washington was the biggest disappointment. He just never seemed to fulfill what I thought he could do after his freshman year. He was such a defensive liability to this staff, and that in turn affected his offensive output.
This group took to coaching in rebounding, the defense improved in its rotation, and the offense had to adjust from motion to a pick-and-roll style that bothered them early but eventually they showed some efficiency.
3. It's hard to judge a coach after only one season, but that won't stop us from asking you this: what is your impression of John Pelphrey, and do you think he is the right person for the job?
He’s absolutely the right person for the job. He demanded the players not reach their potential but exceed it, every time out. They didn’t always respond. We sportswriters who know it all should have seen this coming with six seniors. If you have six seniors, they must not be very good in today’s game – difference makers, I mean. They’re good players, mind you, but there’s not one player on that team that can take this team on his back and beat the best teams. Now, this team can get hot on a given night and beat almost anyone, but everything being equal and both teams at the same level of readiness, Arkansas would be unlikely to stay with any of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Pelphrey was not hired to win or lose this season. The team, for all practical purposes, was set. He needed to do what he could to develop chemistry among a group that doesn’t blend well together. It’s not a great mix. The ballhandling is terribly suspect for what we expect out of Razorback basketball. The guards are not top quality guards. So, in matchups against better guards, Arkansas usually faltered. Georgia beating Arkansas twice was not an upset. The Bulldogs talent in the backcourt was significantly better, and that’s where the game starts.
Let’s judge Pelphrey on what he was hired to do: recruit with up to six scholarships available and build the program over the next 2-3 years. He’s absolutely on the right track for that. If you have any reservations on whether Pelphrey can build the program, look at the talent on South Florida , which is much of his along with transfers that Ronnie Arrow brought in when Pelphrey left. Word from South Alabama is, also, that those players all really like each other. Transfers, mostly, but they get along. Wouldn’t that have been nice to say about the Razorbacks.
4. To what do you attribute the Hogs' ability to look great at home, awful on the road, like world beaters against Tennessee and duds against Georgia ? Does it stem from a lack of focus and mental toughness, or is it just a reflection of the talent level?
Basketball is a home court game, first, and that’s never more true than in the SEC. Unless you hare superior at your guards, and unless you shoot extraordinarily well compared to the rest of the league, you are not going to win even a handful of road games in this conference. Arkansas could rarely take its shooting on the road with it this season. Most teams can rarely if ever take their aggressiveness on defense on the road without incurring foul trouble. After December’s games, I saw Arkansas as a 10-6 team (they went 9-7), and with only two wins on the road. The biggest disappointment is that Arkansas lost at home to South Carolina, but SC also beat Ole Miss on the road, and Dave Odom was a good enough coach to devise a game plan every night out that gave his team a chance if it didn’t turn the ball over and shot well and kept the ball in its best players hands, and on that particular night, it worked.
The road game at Alabama , I have no explanation for that except that Arkansas could not throw it in the ocean. As Arkansas ’ shooting progressively worsens in any game, so does its defense.
I guess, going back to disappointments about the season, if there is one disappointment about this team – and I’m going to attribute it mostly to talent – it’s that Arkansas didn’t score near enough as the best teams do from its defense. I’m certain Pelphrey knows that and wants that, but outside of Weems and Beverley, and occasionally Ervin, there wasn’t anyone on the team who could force turnovers that resulted in baskets on the other end, and rarely could this team finish well.
A lot of teams will look like duds the day after beating a powerhouse like Tennessee . I wasn’t surprised in the least. Disappointed for them, sure, but not surprised. Georgia was a bad matchup for Arkansas . That just happens. Arkansas is a bad matchup for Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt’s a solid team and shouldn’t lose five straight to anyone, but has to Arkansas. The fact that Arkansas can match up well with them in the backcourt athletically and on the front line puts the Hogs over the top. On the other hand, Georgia ’s physical backcourt takes Arkansas ’ guards apart nearly every time they’ve met, even at Fayetteville last year. Arkansas had to scramble to pretty much finally put them away at Fayetteville , then Gaines got hot again and Georgia hit four-straight 3s to beat them. They play very physically, the officials let that game Sunday stay physical, Arkansas finally matched the physical style as the first half ended and through the second half, but the well was dry to get over the top late. Georgia was saved, though, and I mean SAVED by those television time outs. Back in the old days, they would have been gassed and passed by the Hogs easily in the final minutes. The long TO’s saved them.
5. How close did Nolan Richardson come to being the next Arkansas State coach? Do you know what the stumbling blocks to an agreement were?
I don’t believe in the long run that Nolan Richardson wanted the job. I believe when the sides talked first, they both were agreeing to everything, and from A-State’s side, I believe that they felt Nolan was very interested and would take it, that what he wanted was doable. Then, he came back a few days later with the kind of demands – control of scheduling of the Convocation Center , putting his son in position to succeed him, etc. – that were almost certainly going to lead to A-State saying "We can’t do this." It’s as if Nolan just wanted to get his name out as a man still interested in coaching, needed the publicity this would bring, but needed the "right" offer and this wasn’t it. I don’t know if that offer is out there at this point. He’s 66. Look where Rick Majerus ended up, Saint Louis . Arkansas wouldn’t talk to Majerus last year. In Nolan’s case, don’t take six years off and then say, "here I am." But it’s good to know that Nolan’s ego hasn’t taken too huge a hit from the way Arkansas let him go.
ASU got the right guy in John Brady. You’ll see a John Brady that’s a little different from the stressed out guy at LSU this past year. I think fans are going to like seeing his teams, and I think perhaps he can get more fans don’t see themselves following A-State begin to get behind the Red Wolves. Winning the Sun Belt Conference requires you have at least one really good guard and a good scorer-defender inside, two major difference makers, and a second outstanding guard doesn’t hurt, along with nine guys who understand they are role players. This is probably true on whatever level you’re looking at, relatively, but let’s face it – it does not require SEC championship talent to win enough games in the Sun Belt to be a champion and get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, were Dickey Nutt to have kept post man Isaac Wells in school, instead of him jumping to play in Italy during the off season, we might not be talking about ASU hiring a new coach. The combo of Wells and Adrian Banks is the type of combo that has been winning the Sun Belt every year for Western Kentucky, South Florida , etc.
It’s a pretty good league, really. North Texas stomped Oklahoma State in nonconference. Two teams made the dance. USA beat Mississippi State . I don’t think a lot of basketball fans around Central Arkansas appreciate how good and competitive the league is.
6. When people look back at this Razorback senior class in 5 to 10 years, what will be the most indelible memory of their era? How will they be judged against other Razorback teams?
I guess I’ll tell you that Sunday, if not next Sunday. Taking the NCAA Tournament out of the equation, everyone will always look at this team as one that much was expected, little was delivered. Just when they looked like world-beaters, they’d turn around and lay an egg. Even when they were sophs and had Brewer and Modica as leaders, same thing. They put on a great run at season’s end, playing eventual champ Florida tight in the tourney, then they blow it all against Bucknell. A change in coaches only changed the record a couple of games this year. They left at least three games on the table by simply not playing as hard as they could, or playing selfishly.
7. What's your all-time favorite Razorback basketball team?
Well, the national championship team in 1994 is the obvious answer. That team was complete in every way, so many weapons, and Nolan could put a variety of combinations together to handle any situation. Against Tulsa in the NCAA Tournament, for example, he could go small with Corliss in the post, full-court pressing and Scotty Thurman raining 3's. Against Michigan, Arkansas had to go big, play half-court in fact (which everyone said Arkansas couldn’t do), and Darnell Robinson probably earned his scholarship in that game going up against Juwan Howard. And Al Dillard was amazing, in that game and several others. The SEC was probably at its all-time talent high, and we really weren’t as talented a first six players as the 1992 Hogs. But they were very good players and just a perfect, unselfish team. And as long as I live, I’ll never forget Dwight Stewart fumbling the ball and getting it over as quickly as he could to Thurman for the dagger against Duke. I’ll also never for that Florida game in Fayetteville that year. Florida wasn’t getting a lot of pub. I remember watching it and thinking, gosh, this looks like a Final Four game. And sure enough, Florida ended up reaching the Final Four in Charlotte with us.
Next to that one, though, I really enjoyed the 1979 Hog team. Sidney took that team on his shoulders, they had some big wins at places that were hard on us, like the Drum in Austin, in Waco, and in Lubbock, and really they should have been in the Final Four instead of Indiana State. Arkansas in the Sweet Sixteen knocked out Louisville , who would win it all the next year. Then Arkansas knocked them out again in 1981. That was another fun team. U.S. Reed took that team on his shoulders, much like Sidney , and if anybody ever was deserving of hitting a half-court shot in the NCAA Tournament, it was Ulysses. The Hogs were no match for LSU in the Sweet Sixteen that year, but the season was fun from Alaska all the way to New Orleans. The schedule was terrific.
One last team I’d like to mention that probably was Eddie Sutton’s best overall team but the fans don’t remember much is the 1983 team. I contend still that the officials in some respect were influenced by people wanting a Louisville-Kentucky matchup – the first one in 55 years – in the Mideast Regional final, and Arkansas in the Sweet 16 game in Knoxville (UT’s old Stokely Center) got one of those bang-bang calls late that make you want to pull your hair out. Actually two. Up 61-59, Arkansas gets a steal from Darrell Walker at midcourt, and he is certain to get a dunk. You watch the tape, the whistle for a foul comes with Walker already about 15 feet downcourt heading to all but ice the game. Then, at 61-all, Charles Balentine does the same thing Reed did against Indiana State in 79; he gets banged around and falls and is called for traveling. For the coup de grace, Louisville ’s forwards play volleyball over Joe Kleine’s back to tip in the game-winning basket, and Louisville beats a plodding Kentucky next and goes to the Final Four. We wouldn’t have beaten Houston that year if we’d played them 10 times, but it would have been nice for a good team like that to reach the Final Four. They went 26-4. TCU beat them on a last-second shot in the SWC Tournament, Phi Slama Jama beat them twice, and then Louisville, a Final Four team, knocked them out. Robertson and Walker out front were thievin’ demons. A pretty darn salty bunch all around, if you ask me. Not a great shooting team by any stretch, but defensively about as good as you get.