When the basketball schedule was announced, I was more excited for the Syracuse game than any other because, obviously, they're a top-of-the-line opponent in Fayetteville, which always makes for an electric Bud. But also because that game takes place Friday, November 30th, the night before the SEC Championship Game is played in Atlanta. I had dreams of a magical Razorback weekend in which the basketball team knocks off an elite program on Friday night and the football team wins the elusive SEC title the next day.
The football team didn't exactly hold up their part of the bargain, but I'm still excited for that Syracuse game and for basketball season in general. Even though the last few years have ended horribly, there is reason for optimism this year. There are a few immediate upgrades we can point to that will help a team that was an NCAA bubble team going into February last season.
1. Depth. Because of injuries and transfers, last year's roster was hardly full. It's amazing they didn't hold open tryouts for walk ons at some point. The team openly admits they hit a wall. Which is totally understandable given they only had a rotation of about 8 players most of the year, and about half of them could barely move, and a couple of them scared children with their ball handling skills. This year? 16 players dressed for the team photo. 16! That's three whole units if necessary. Although, to be fair, if the Hogs have to utilize that 15th man too much, they'll be in trouble.
2. Player Upgrades. Bless Michael Sanchez's heart. He played through injuries. He was a great character guy. But there isn't a single Razorback fan that didn't cringe when he started dribbling. I'd like to go back and watch film to see if Mardracus Wade or Ricky Scott just started backing up to get ready for defense whenever Sanchez put the ball on the floor. Sanchez has graduated, along with Marvell Waithe. Julysses Nobles is gone after putting in three up and down seasons. But Anderson brought in Coty Clarke, who's been known to be a solid rebounder and scorer down low. Michael Qualls is an impressive athlete from Louisiana. Anderson compared his athleticism to Derek Hood. A host of other freshmen like JaCorey Williams and Anthlon Bell will be seen at Primetime. Fred Gully transfered in from Oklahoma State to be Arkansas' new point guard. Alandise Harris would be an impact player if the NCAA clears him to play this year, but everyone just has their fingers crossed on that. Definite upgrades though.
3. Development of older players. Bottom line, if BJ Young is deserving of all the hype he's getting, Arkansas will be in the tournament in March. Any NBA lottery pick should be able to lead a team to the NCAA tournament on his own. Mardracus Wade was impressive in the team's trip to Italy and, considering the huge jump he made from his freshman year to his sophomore year, there's reason to see great things from him this year. Hunter Mickelson is continuing to develop physically and Rickey Scott has been reported to be improving as well. If Ky Madden can begin to live up to his recruitment hype, that would be a huge boost as well.
4. Marshawn Powell should be back. It should go without saying, but if/when Powell gets healthy, it will be an automatic upgrade to the Hog frontcourt compared to what the Hogs had last year.
So, yes, I'm stoked for basketball. I'll probably get chills when the lights go out at Bud Walton tonight and the players get introduced. Always one of my favorite parts of a basketball game. The schedule sets up for a lot of exciting games at Bud Walton this year, including Syracuse, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee. I expect to be at a lot of games this year, and I hope a lot of you guys can help fill up the Bud again.
Ultimately, what do I expect from the team? I'll be disappointed if they don't make the NCAA tournament. This feels like a team that should be among the top 68 teams in the country. If they play well and get a little lucky, they'll end up with a seed in a decent part of the bracket that will allow them the opportunity to make a run-unlike the 2008 team that had the unfortunate luck to play a loaded North Carolina team in the second round.
Show up to Primetime at the Palace tonight if you can. It's free. It starts at 9:00. There will be a dunk contest (Michael Qualls is my pick to win. BJ is my runner-up pick), a scrimmage, and more entertainment. Honestly, I thought it was kind of lame last year, but I think it will be better this year. Who do you think will win the dunk contest? Come on out.