The Arkansas Razorbacks' basketball team got off to a hot start this year, finishing the non-conference slate at 11-2. With those two losses coming at the hands of Cal and Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational, teams ranked 26th and 31st in the RPI respectively, Hogs fans had a lot to be excited about going into the conference season. With two tough losses to open the conference season, many fans have lost a bit of faith in head coach Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks. Lets take a look at what has helped the Hogs to this point and what might help land us in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2007-2008 season.
If there were any questions about whether or not he would have a significant impact this year, Bobby Portis has silenced all of them with his play. Being named SEC Freshman of the Week twice so far, Portis has become a large part of the Razorback system almost immediately. With season averages of 12.5 points per game and 1.9 assists per game, Portis has shown that he has the ability to be the primary focus of the offense. Portis can back down his matchup in the post or step out and hit a jump shot. He seems very comfortable with his range, whether that is from the elbow or even behind the arc. Portis is also comfortable on the defensive end, averaging 6.3 rebounds, where he leads the team, 1.2 blocks, and almost 1.0 steals per game.
As a team, the Razorbacks have been pretty good on defense to this point, only surrendering 67.9 points per game. This can be attributed to them averaging 5.0 blocks and 9.2 steals per game, with 6 players tallying 10+ steals. The addition of freshman Moses Kingsley, redshirt junior Alandise Harris, and the continued growth of senior Coty Clarke have helped improve a frontcourt that was very poor on the defensive end last year. Kingsley, while still needing quite a bit of work on offense, has shown that he can be a rim-protecting presence going forward.
The Hogs can also contribute a bit of their success to the way that sophomore Michael Qualls has developed after his first season. After a freshman season where he was largely an off the bench energy player, he has grown into a solid starting guard. Improving his overall field goal percentage from 40% to 47% and his 3 point percentage from 22% to 37%, Qualls has the potential to be a threat from anywhere on the court. While there is still room for improvement on both ends of the court, Qualls has shown that he possesses the ability to be a star for this team.
The Razorbacks' NCAA Tournament aspirations will hinge on the continued growth of Portis and Qualls and wheter or not the team can continue playing good defense and forcing a high number of turnovers.
While the Razorbacks have largely improved from last year, there are still problems that need to be addressed before Anderson has the program back to its Nolan Richardson led heights. The frontcourt has been shored up with solid play from Portis, Clarke, Harris, and Kingsley, but there are a lot of questions remaining in the backcourt. Anderson has plenty of options at the position, which seems to be the problem here. Junior guard Rashad Madden is having a great season, averaging 11.2 points per game and leading the Razorbacks in 3 point shooting, but Anderson doesn't seem to have a clear cut backup at the position. This is reminiscent of last year when he used a trio of guards, Madden, Rickey Scott, and Mardracus Wade, to act as the backup for BJ Young. Perhaps this is part of Anderson's overall gameplan, as he tries not to rely on any single player. The waters are muddied even more than last year with seniors Scott, Wade, Fred Gulley III, and Kikko Haydar, and sophomore Anthlon Bell all averaging over 10 minutes per game. This strategy can keep defenses on their toes, but hinders the players from developing a rhythm and having a large impact on the game. Anderson might need to shorten his lineup a bit as the Razorbacks go further into conference play and decide between which players he will give minutes to. Look for him to make a choice between these five guards and Kingsley and Jacorey Williams as the fourth forward off the bench.
After a sophomore season that saw him lead the Razorbacks in minutes, 28.8 minutes per game, and the SEC in 3 point percentage, Mardracus Wade has seemingly disappeared from this team. His minutes have been few and far between, averaging only 13.0 minutes per game and not playing in two games. He is averaging a career low in both minutes and points per game. Maybe Anderson feels that he has better options, but it's hard to imagine that there isn't a need for defense, Wade has led the team in steals the past two seasons, and 3 point shooting in a backcourt that has struggled with both at times.Though it doesn't appear that things will change for Wade, it is a sad way to see these senior spend his final season after playing so well.
Among the ugliest things on the court this year, Jacorey Williams shot form. He is a decent shooter, it just looks terrible getting there.