The Hog Blogger asks us if we're excited. Well, um, yeah. Like we haven't been since wa-a-a-a-y back, before Stan. Before the bad Latter-Day Years of Nolan. Say, 1995.
And why should we be excited?
* National Recognition. Seems like there's a few folks out there taking notice. Dan Shanoff, writing on the Sporting News Blog, had this to say: "If you had to pick an early-season Coach of the Year, why not John Pelphrey? He lost his top five scorers from a year ago, and his team is even better — no team in college hoops this season has notched a more impressive pair of wins."
And Andy Katz, over at ESPN, who normally doesn't much care for things Hoggish, had this to say: "No team in the Big 12 this season may do what Arkansas just did: beat Oklahoma and Texas."
Gary Parrish, at CBS, says the Hogs are the biggest surprise of the season and has us solidly in the field for the NCAA Tournament: "The Razorbacks are starting a freshman backcourt (Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke), getting major minutes from a former football player (Marcus Monk) and riding a big man who averaged just 4.3 points per game last season (Michael Washington). And it's working."
* Whoa. We're Dancing Already? Okay, I am usually the voice of caution and pessimism or even downright nasty gloom. But let's do a little projecting here. The Hogs stand 12-1. Even before these two victories, I had seen enough to think the Hogs could go 6-10. For the sake of argument, let's assume they do no better. That's still 18-11 and solidly on the bubble.
After we beat Oklahoma (but before we beat Texas), I think a prediction of 8-8 in SEC play would have been warranted. That's 20-9, and almost surely in. And really, after these two games, allowing yourself to think the Hogs can hold serve at home and sneak a couple on the road is not totally out of line. Say 10-6. That probably wins the SEC West or is no worse than second, and works out to a stunning 22-7. That's working for seeding, there.
* Fun fun fun... You hear it from everyone you talk to: this team is "fun to watch." Which is another way of saying, "I no longer feel that watching the Razorbacks is like getting my teeth drilled without Novocaine." Sure they make mistakes, but damn, twice in the OU game I saw all five Hogs on the floor in a scrum. All five.
And it's not just floor burns they aren't afraid of. They are not afraid to shoot (the hallmark disease of the Heath Era). Rotnei can miss five in a row, but if he's open on the wing, he's firing. And he will most likely hit it. They aren't afraid to drive. Not just Fortson, either, but also Welsh and, especially, Washington. (That drive to the rack to seal the deal against Texas was just strong as horseradish.) Courtney does some stupid stuff, but it's not because he's timid. And so far, he's good more than he's stupid. That lack of fear shows: Washington hits a huge three on a lucky bounce; Britt makes a basket-saving tie-up on a five-on-four break; Welsh drains a huge trey to push us back up three. Which of those plays would have happened last year? 'Nuff said.
We have played some tenacious defense in these two games. Jim Harris, over at Arkansas 360, pondered how it was that when the Hogs shot poorly in the first half ESPN said it was great defense by Texas, while similarly poor shooting by Texas was just, well, poor shooting. Maybe he was a little oversensitive, but not much. These Hogs are really starting to get it on defense. They have looked very bad at times, but not in these two Big 12 contests. I heard third-hand that what you didn't see on TV was that Welsh never got out of A. J. Abrams shirt. Like even during free throws, when Abrams went to talk to Rick Barnes, Welsh shadowed him. Like right in his shirt. While Barnes was talking. I love that.
(Oh, and to answer another Jim Harris question: No, if Patrick Beverley had stayed, I don't think this team would be nearly as good. Beverley would be a crutch, Welsh would not have developed, and I am not at all sure that PB wasn't a huge part of the selfishness that marred last year's squad. The only guy from last year I wish we had? Darian Townes. His size inside would have made this team truly exceptional.)
*...'til your Pelphrey takes the Courtney away. Now, the problem with all this excitability is that the Hogs remain dangerously thin. If, for whatever reason (injury, fouls, poor class attendance), Washington and Fortson are not on the court, this team will struggle. The Hogs have zero depth. So far, Pelphrey and staff have done an incredible job at managing foul difficulty. The offense-defense substitutions are brilliant. But on the road in the SEC, the refereeing can, and will, get plain ugly. We'll lose a couple of games on that factor alone. And let's all knock on wood and say "no injuries." A key injury or two and we will be radically altering our SEC predictions.
*Pel-Mell. Most of us already liked John Pelphrey. Now he's starting to build a legend. We got us a real coach. One with passion, who hates to lose, who has found a way to imbue his team with all the over-achieving gym rat traits he himself brought to the game. Really, I would have been happy to win 19 games this year. Not John Pelphrey. And that fire, that doggedness, and the ability to convey it to the team, is truly exceptional. At one point, reading lips, I saw him bend over to Fortson, getting ready to go back in with four or so to go in the first half, and bark at him "what are you gonna do?" and Fortson barked back "I won't foul!" After a Texas player blew right by Brandon Moore for an easy layup, another lip-reader reported he distinctly saw Pelphrey scream "That's why I can't play you more!"
You have to love him. (And you also should become a closet Kentucky fan. You want Billy Gillispie to win every game other than the ones against Arkansas. Seriously.)
I will agree with ESPN on one thing: get a new wardrobe, John! Sheesh. You're making plenty of money, get someone to tailor you some shirts and ties and jackets that fit. Really. I love your geekiness, but if you're going to go stripe on stripe, dude, you have to get those threads cut.
Okay. If my entire criticism of this year comes down to John Pelphrey's clothes, then I guess you'd have to say it's a success so far.
Tighten up those laces, and bring on the SEC. For the first time in a long time, I can't wait.