What I Really Care About Is Basketball


And I mean both men's and women's basketball at the University of Arkansas. But today, let's talk about the men.

First, about the schedule. Let's drop the "toughest schedule EVAR" talk. The schedule that got Nolan Richardson fired, 2001-02, was probably Arkansas's most difficult opposition. That year, the Razorbacks faced five top 30 foes just in nonconference play, plus rising Memphis and ORU. And the SEC was ridiculous -- seven teams won 20 or more. Alabama was top 10, and Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Georgia were top 25.

This year's schedule features many good games, but it might not even be the most difficult in recent memory. In the past five seasons, Arkansas played as many as 11 nonconference games against legitimate opposition, as few as four against sub-250 RPI crapposition.

The 2012-13 slate is notable for how many seriously difficult challenges the Hogs will face, more than the absolute number of decent opponents. Seven games will be against teams that rated below 250 in RPI last season, most of those below the dreaded 300th.

Only six nonleague opponents on the new schedule are good enough to test the Razorbacks at all, and that ties with the lowest such number over the past five seasons.

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This breakdown of the past five years' won-loss records shows in painful detail how undistinguished Razorback basketball became. Arkansas had four straight seasons of being an SEC pushover. In the past two years, schedule padding overstated the team's ability. This year, some padding remains, but the Hogs will face enough tests to earn their way back into the spotlight -- if they can.

Toughest test: Road trip to Michigan, which is a consensus top five team in preseasons forecasts.

Next hardest: Hard to choose between Syracuse (coming to Fayetteville in the SEC-Big East challenge), and whichever of Wisconsin or Creighton that Arkansas will face in a Las Vegas tournament.

Also good: Oklahoma (home), Arizona State (Vegas), Robert Morris (home).

Never fear, enough complete garbage opponents are on the rack to allow the Hogs to have plenty of half-empty Bud Waltons in December.

The schedule might be a little padded because there are three really possible losses on the nonconference lineup. Or it could be the enlarged and scrambled-up Southeastern Conference schedule that prompted conservatism.

Home games, toughest first: Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State.

Road: Missouri, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU.

Not going to pause here for a complete SEC preview, but I see four really difficult home games, five more on the road. Dreaded midweek road games during the school semester: Alabama (Jan. 31), Auburn (Feb. 13), LSU (Feb. 27), Missouri (March 5). To have any kind of decent season, Arkansas must win some road games.

Fortunately, a handful of SEC opponents have run into hard times, so some of these road games are more winnable than they would have been in other seasons.

How have the Razorbacks recovered from the closing collapse in Mike Anderson's first season back in Fayetteville? Recall, Arkansas was 16-6 on Jan. 31, went 2-8 down the stretch.

Veteran guard Julysses Nobles and freshman forward Devonta Abron transferred. Both were encouraged, for different reasons. Regardless of why they left, Anderson feels much better about his team's ability to play fast, aggressive basketball.

Team unity appears to be much improved. The roster has at least a dozen usable players, much deeper than the way last season ended. This team looks like it is going to get points in the paint much more easily, and not just because of the return of star forward Marshawn Powell. Pressure defense will be possible, at least in spurts.

Guards -- B.J. Young (6-3 so) and Mardracus Wade (6-2 jr) will start. Anderson likes the way both have developed since the end of last season. Wade shows signs of becoming a complete player, scoring in more ways while improving his team-best defensive ability. Young seems to be buying in, though he still has to prove his willingness to go all out on defense.

Anderson is likely to start three guards, and for now the third would be Rickey Scott (6-3 jr). His game wasn't quite right last season. Scott started cold and finished with 18% shooting from 3-point range. He also struggled at the free throw line. With the enhanced amount of offseason coaching that the NCAA allows now, plus the team's 4-0 exhibition trip to Italy, Scott progressed pretty fast.

Usable subs include Rashad Madden (6-5 so), Davion Spivey (6-2 so), Anthlon Bell (6-3 fr), and midterm-eligible, Fayetteville native Fred Gulley (6-2 jr), coming in from Oklahoma State. Three other guards are hoping to find some time. Lots of guards. Biggest development could be the improvement of Madden, who needed to get a little better at everything. And Anderson had lots of time to fit Madden into a role.

Wings -- Arkansas has lacked a true small forward to match up against the great players some SEC opponents feature at this position. This year, the Hogs will be able to go to two or three. Michael Qualls (6-5 fr) makes outlandish slams, he rebounds, runs the court, blocks shots, finds ways to use his crazy leaping ability. Jacorey Williams (6-8 fr) reminds me of a Laurence Bowers type, though with more perimeter game. After football (which might be sooner than we had thought), the team will get walk-on Mekale McKay (6-6 fr).

It's unclear how often Anderson will go with a conventional "two bigs, small forward, two guards" lineup. Expect the Hog head man to go with one post, three guards and a wing forward at times. This is likely for strategic reasons, to improve pressure defense and team speed, as well as out of necessity.

Posts -- Powell (6-7 jr) is recovering from major knee surgery and likely won't be able to give full minutes for a while. But he showed enough in Italy to raise hopes. Thank goodness Anderson has tremendous Birmingham, Ala., connections. His savior this season might be juco transfer Coty Clarke (6-7 jr). Clarke was a prep star in the Birmingham area. In juco, Clarke grew some and developed into a strong rebounder and low post scorer. Clarke likely supplanted Hunter Mickelson (6-10 so) in the starting lineup alongside Powell. But Mickelson shouldn't worry about playing time, for obvious reasons. His height will be invaluable against some matchups.

I don't view this season as a warm-up for next year. We didn't get to see truly hellish defense and fast-forward basketball in Anderson's first season as Arkansas head man. The roster started with no margin for error, and recurrent injury problems left the Hogs playing an unrecognizable style of hoop in the closing six weeks. In 2012-13, Anderson has enough players that he can bench anyone who doesn't buy into D. He'll get more as the season goes on, in fact.

The Anderson style should be back this season. If everything clicks, then the Razorbacks should be highly competitive with everybody they play at home. On the road, only a few games might be out of reach for matchup reasons. If Powell and Clarke work well enough together, the Hogs could have some answers for when they get down-tempo'd on the road.

The X factor...Razorback fans. Bud Walton Arena has been a shadow of its past glories for many seasons. A lot of the problem has been the quality of basketball, but long-term erosion of support and economic factors play into it. Will fans fill the Bud for big games? If they show up, will Arkansas fans sit back and wait for the team to impress them?

Overpowering noise from the fans at home always has been an essential part of the success of Arkansas basketball, ever since Eddie Sutton and some great in-state talent rescued the program from ignominy. I can't envision great success from the Razorbacks in 2012-13 without it. But great success is in reach.

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