Arkansas Fight Panel Discussion: Talking Early Basketball Season, NCAA Chances, Defensive Line Coach Thoughts

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Gathering our contributors' opinions on the topics of the week.

1. We're about a third of the way through the season. What are your overall thoughts on the team so far?

Trent: I may have said this last season as well, but no, really, this team IS fun to watch. They look much more complete. They appear to have multiple players willing and able to step up and make a play to end the scoring droughts that have KILLED the last several teams.

I'm not buying in completely until they win their second conference road game, however.

Drew: I feel pretty confident about the team so far.  It was nice to get the "road" monkey off our back early on this season, but it also would have been nice to have a true road game played before the SEC opener against A&M.

Randy: Improving fast - if the next month featuring nothing but five games against pushovers doesn't torpedo the momentum. This young-and-old roster started well, then got what it needed in Maui to recalibrate the pace of improvement and the height of aspirations. Let's hope improvement continues over the holiday break, because the first three SEC games are easily loseable.

Ryan: They are who I thought they were. Jan. 8 can't come soon enough.

Scottie: I like where we are right now. Coming in, the question for this team was undoubtedly scoring. Who was going to shoulder the scoring load after BJ Young and Marshawn Powell left? And what we've seen so far is several guys who are capable of leading the team in scoring. I like the balance. I like the defensive intensity. My only gripe is the free throws, which we haven't shot well lately. With the new NCAA rules, free throws are going to be a factor in a game at some point this season.

Doc: Record-wise, they're right where pretty much everybody expected. However, I've been impressed with the ease in which they've won most of their games. Like Scottie said, scoring was the big question coming into the season, and other than a few stretches here and there, that hasn't been a problem.

The big question now is whether they can keep it up in those first three SEC games. Can they beat a bad A&M team on the road? Can they continue to be dominant at home and beat Florida and/or Kentucky? It's a really big stretch for the team.

2. It seems the consensus goal for this team is to make the NCAA Tournament. At this point do you think that will happen? Why or why not?

Ryan: They're only a 11 seed right now, according to Joe Lunardi. That's one bad loss on the road in Starkville/Athens/College Station from being dropped from the tournament. I'm cautiously optimistic.  It depends on how the SEC is viewed by the selection committee. If they allow three SEC teams into the tournament, I give Arkansas a 5% chance to make the tournament. If they pick five teams, I give Arkansas a 75% chance of making it.

Trent: I want to believe. I want to believe. I want to believe. I want to believe.

Drew: If we can hold serve at BWA like we usually do, and can finally take some road games at places other than Auburn, this will be the year we return to the Big Dance.  If we start the SEC schedule 3-0, you can go ahead and pencil us in for March.  If we drop our road game at A&M, we may be in trouble.

Scottie: I think this is the year we make it back to the tournament. This team has the toughness to win on the road. Harris, Clarke, Portis' play will be key. We need solid play from the interior guys to keep defenders honest on our perimeter guys. And Moses Kinglsey has showed me something since Maui. Since he's started playing well, I'm much more excited about where the team can go.

Randy: Yes - this team can score, and the young big men are just getting an idea of what they can do on the college level, which is plenty. How easily Arkansas makes it into the Big Dance depends on whether Mike Anderson can elicit good enough guard play from an imperfect roster.

3. What has been the biggest surprise of the season?

Drew: Mike Qualls, hands down.  His freak athleticism got him some attention last year, but his game has really matured this year.  Good stuff just happens when he's on the floor.  If he continues to produce at the level has been so far this season, we've got a potential 1st-Team SEC player on our hands.

Trent: That I've wanted to hug Ky Madden more frequently than I've wanted to stuff him inside of a giant Gatorade cooler.

Randy: I'm torn between Qualls and Madden. Qualls was the human blown-dunk highlight reel as a freshman. Now he is the team's most complete player, and he might not be done improving. Madden to date is the team's most accurate 3-point shooter, and he has sharpened every other aspect of his game. These two guard-slash-wing players have eclipsed the production lost when Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young went pro + Hunter Mickelson transferred.

Mini-surprise: Practically all the hoop media said shooting guard Anthlon Bell absolutely had to raise his game to give Arkansas enough outside shooting. The Hogs have made an impressive 39% of their threes so far, with Bell lagging just under 33%. Bell started hot but has been 5-25 since the Minnesota win, a five-game span.

Ryan: I don't know which assistant coach worked with Qualls and Madden on shooting in the off-season, but that coach needs a raise.

Scottie: Michael Qualls. Last year, he had a so-so jumpshot, and really only made his biggest impacts on the defensive end. This season he is much more well-rounded as a player. His jumpshot is leaps and bounds better than last year, and he's still making big plays defensively. Leading the team in scoring and rebounding was definitely something I didn't expect from him. I agree with Drew. He's a legit All-SEC second team guy right now, but could blossom into something more.

Doc: Good surprise - like everybody said: Qualls and Madden being so consistent. Bad surprise? Coty Clarke and Anthlon Bell have fallen off after hot starts. And that Mardracus Wade appears to be a total non-factor at this point. I still think if Arkansas can get ALL the players to live up to their capabilities, they can be a very scary team.

4. In non-conference play, we've seen several players have great games at times and not-so-great at others. Is there one player in particular you think the team will need consistently good performances from in order for the team to be successful in SEC play?

Drew: We're finally starting to build some depth to the point that we're not dependent on one single player to carry us, like we were with BJ and Marshawn last year.  If, for example, Portis has an off night, there's a good chance that Kingsley or Harris can pick up the slack.  Same goes with Qualls, Madden, and Gulley.

The biggest thing we need is for Anthlon Bell to get out of his shooting funk sooner rather than later.  Through the Minnesota game, he was shooting better than 40% from 3-pt; since the SELA game, he's made just 3 of the 15 shots he's attempted (1-10 from 3-pt).

Trent: It certainly appears that Michael Qualls is the capstone of the team, but I think the play of Alandis Harris is going to grow more and more important as the season goes on. #SECBasketballFever or not, it IS a physical league, and Arkansas is going to need a bruiser on both ends of the court to win some tight games for them this season.

Scottie: For me it's Coty Clarke and Ky Madden. Madden has played the best ball of his career the last month or so, and if he can continue playing at a high level and solidify that point guard position, Arkansas will be dangerous. Coty Clarke is the x-factor, I believe. Harris and Qualls are consistent, so I don't worry about them too much. But if Clarke plays to his potential, alongside Harris, like he did with Powell last year, we're definitely a tournament team – and dare I say a top 25 team.

Randy: This roster has shown surprising flexibility, but Qualls and Madden have been the most effective scorers by far. Subtract them, and the Razorbacks would be confounded on the scoring end with virtually no talent in the backcourt. I'm just getting used to these two being semi-awesome, so I'll say their continued success will decide the outcome of the season.

Ryan: Madden, Qualls and Portis all are guys that need to be consistent because of the lack of depth behind them. Madden has to because there is no true PG behind him. Qualls because there is only one guy like him in the country. Portis because of the lack of size at his position.

Doc: This doesn't directly answer the question but it's been really exciting watching Portis and Kingsley improve over the course of the first month of the season. The rapid progress has been really exciting. Arkansas really could have a dominant inside presence by SEC play if they keep getting better.

5. With no new 2014 commitments, there's not really been any football news since the season ended until this weekend's announcement that Charlie Partridge is leaving. Thoughts on that?

Randy: Trying not to think about football until I absolutely have to.

Drew: It's definitely been a little quieter than I'd prefer; I'm afraid the "timing" of a 3-9 season isn't going to be right for some of the bigger names we're after.  One thing that has me hopeful is the fact that the staff didn't take Kweishi Brown back after he had second thoughts - that's perhaps an indicator that they feel good about some of the higher rated players on the board.

Losing Partridge is going to hurt Florida recruiting, obviously, but I'm excited to see who we get to replace him - there's some high quality candidates that are making far less at their current jobs than what we would be able to pay.

Trent: Partridge was the coach I most wanted to hang onto, but you have to be excited for anyone getting the opportunity to be a head coach. I don't know enough about the potential position coach replacement pool to have a preference on the new hire. Where is Trooper Taylor currently

Ryan: As much as I would love for Ed Orgeron to come, it would be a huge paycut compared what he was making at USC. With Mike Munchak on the hot seat with the Tennessee Titans, Tracy Rocker may be looking for a job again soon. He coached NFL draft picks Jeb Huckeba, Jamal Anderson and Keith Jackson Jr. while at Arkansas, and Nick Fairley while at Auburn.

Scottie: The timing couldn't have been worse (Doc, you pointed that out over the weekend, and I couldn't agree more). It was a big recruiting weekend on campus, and after a 3-9 season, more negativity towards the program is never good. Even Bielema tweeted today that good news is still welcome in the football offices. It's been a rough week for the football program. But if there was a part of the defense that was actually worth something it was the D-line. I guess I'm happy for him, but more excited to see who Bielema has replace him. I just hope it doesn't hurt the recruiting class too much.

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