With the Razorback basketball season off to an unexpectedly absorbing start, we thought now was a good time to check in with one of our favorite sports scribes, Jim Harris, the editor of the outstanding ArkansasSports360.com. If checking out the fine work that Jim and his crew crank out isn't a part of your daily routine, it needs to be.
Many thanks to Mr. Harris for his time (and by the way, our previous Q&A's with Jim are available here and here). And now it's time to sit back, relax and find out what the man once dubbed "the High Priest of Hogdom" has to say about this year's Hog basketball team ....
How surprised were you by the Hogs' performance during their non-conference schedule? What are your expectations for their conference record?
Arkansas exceeded my expectations, and I suspect everyone else’s, in nonconference play. I didn’t expect this young of a team to win at South Alabama, nor did I expect this team to beat Oklahoma or Texas. I think we expected better point guard play, but what has been a surprise is how much Michael Washington has improved overall and how much stronger he is, and how that 30-point effort against Southeastern Louisiana to start the season (hard to believe that was an overtime game) has been typical for him to this point.
I’m also not the least bit surprised Arkansas lost Saturday in the conference opener to Mississippi State. It was Arkansas’ fifth game in two weeks, and the first coming off the Texas victory, and while I thought Arkansas tried hard it didn’t seem like the Hogs had their legs. I saw Mississippi State improving since mid-December, and the matchup with the Bulldogs’ shotblocker, Jarvis Varnado, wasn’t a good one for Arkansas’ inside game. Of course, he wasn’t as big of a factor as Arkansas ’ inability to hit a jump shot.
How does Courtney Fortson's performance compare to other impact freshmen in Hog history? Have you ever seen a freshman assume the leadership reins so quickly?
Lee Mayberry assumed the leadership reins at the point pretty quickly, but he was surrounded by a lot of good if not great players, several who were juniors, in 1988-89. I’m not sure, though, that I’ve ever seen a Razorback guard pass the ball quite like Fortson does, and the way he lifts his team up around him is pretty special. Kareem Reid was able to do that some, especially late in his freshman season (1996) when Arkansas was starting four freshman and a junior center.
Fortson is something special. But now we’re all pretty well convinced that his major weakness is outside shooting – Kareem Reid also suffered at times the same way. I’m amazed, considered how much basketball he’s played, that no one has corrected his shot to use more arch; he shoots an awfully flat ball and delivers it from the side of his head, which leads to the flat trajectory. But I’m also sure this Razorback coaching staff has known this a while and, at this point in the season, they probably don’t want to mess too much with his head.
Opponents are already doing that, as evidenced by his difficult games against Texas and Mississippi State. His tendencies have been scouted well by this point, and some of those penetrate-and-dish plays we saw come so easy in December will be taken away in conference play. On the other hand, not many teams will match up with him with enough talent at point guard either.
If he keeps playing as he has, do you think there's any danger that Michael Washington would leave for the NBA after this year?
If he averaged 25 and 13 for the season, you bet he’d be of high interest to NBA teams for the next draft. I don’t know if he’s going to manage that in SEC play, however. And after this year’s up, Pelphrey and his staff should be able to convince him that one more year in this system could allow him to blow up next year and greatly improve his draft stock.
It all depends on who’s coming out anyway whether he’d be a lottery pick this year with the numbers he’s put up so far. I think the NBA is better at getting the word to the right players whether they should come out early or not, unlike when the ill-advised Scotty Thurman jumped in 1995.
No doubt, the Michael Washington we saw against Oklahoma and Texas ought to be able to make a living in the NBA. It’s funny how the bigger the foe, the better he plays. Remember how he played so well as freshman against Joaquin Noah and Florida.