With the arrival of the hoops season upon us, we decided it was time to chat about this year's Razorback team with Chris Bahn, ArkansasSports360.com's outstanding Hog beat reporter. Bahn covers both the football and basketball teams, and his work is an essential part of our daily sports reading. In the first installment of a two-part Q&A, Bahn discusses John Pelphrey's performance last season, the dynamic freshmen duo of Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke, and the likelihood of Michael Washington enjoying a breakout season. Many thanks to Chris for his time (and be sure to check out his recent cover story on this year's team).
What's your opinion of the job John Pelphrey did in his first year as coach of the Hogs? How does he compare to other Razorback coaches in this stage of their tenures?
It seemed like Pelphrey did a nice job, at least from my vantage point. He inherited a bunch of underachievers and guided them to a second round NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in about a decade. Pelphrey generally seemed to know what buttons to press with that group and, unlike Stan Heath's tenure with the same players, you rarely heard them say the other team "wanted it more" when they lost. That alone was worth a contract extension for Pelphrey.
And Pelphrey had the best debut season of any coach in Arkansas history. That's saying something considering this program includes two Hall of Famers like Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson. That doesn't guarantee Pelphrey will have Sutton or Richardson-type success, but you have to appreciate how he started his tenure.
There's been a lot of hype around Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke. What kind of seasons should we expect from them? Have any other newcomers caught your eye?
Freshmen tend to be pretty unpredictable, but I would be shocked in Fortson and Clarke didn’t appear in a lot of headlines and story leads this year. Individually, they are solid players and together they have great chemistry. Watching Fortson drive the lane, draw in a defense and then dish out to Clarke for a wide-open three-pointer is a thing of beauty. They’ll have their share of mistakes, but I like Arkansas’ future with those two guys in the backcourt.
I’m going to have to reserve judgment on the rest of the newcomers, but I’ll mention Montrell McDonald here just so I can say I did if he has a good year.
True or false: Michael Washington will enjoy a breakout season in 2008-09.
Remember the past two seasons when Washington looked out of shape and winded after about six minutes? That’s not going to happen this year. He’s completely transformed his body and seems to have the endurance to complement his natural athletic and basketball ability.
Based on what you've seen to this point, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this year's squad? What Razorback team of the past would you say they most resemble? (Note: we're hoping you say 1992-93.)
Well, just off the top of my head, I'd point to the 1996 team that included a quick, tough freshman point guard (Kareem Reid/Courtney Fortson) and a sweet-shooting freshman on the wing (Pat Bradley/Rotnei Clarke) with an underappreciated junior post presence inside (Darnell Robinson/Michael Washington). Arkansas was 20-13 with a NCAA Tournament appearance in 1995-96. A year later they went 18-14 with a NIT Final Four trip. I don’t know if this group will pull off that kind of success this year, but the key pieces remind me a little bit of the ones on those teams.