The Hogs' basketball season has been over for nearly two weeks, but the program is, unfortunately, still very much on our minds (there's medication for that, we hear). Simply put, we have lots of questions. And for some answers to those questions, we have turned to Jim Harris, editor of ArkansasSports360.com and a long-time chronicler of Razorback sports. Part One consists of Jim's extremely comprehensive question to our first question. We'll post the rest of the e-mail interview later this week. Many thanks to Jim for his time and thoughtful responses.
Expats: How much longer does Pelphrey have to get the program up and running? Are you convinced one way or the other about his ability to handle the job?
Harris: If Pelphrey fails to land Ky (now he's going by "Rashad") Madden and Hunter Mickelson in the November signing period, and then lays yet another egg with a .500 or below season, then he has to be done. If he's not, there might be a lot of bloodletting in Fayetteville. Athletic Director Jeff Long couldn't avoid the firestorm of a repeat of the past two seasons along with no hope on the recruiting front. If Pel can't land in-state players of this caliber (likely NBA players, I'm assured by people I trust who have watched them), he isn't going to sign them from out of state.
That said, my gut tells me that despite so much uneasiness among the more vocal elements of the fan base this post-season, Pelphrey will land Madden and very likely Mickelson with the already-committed Aaron Ross and one other excellent player in November, while his team will win 20 or more games next year and win more than 8 in the SEC and reach the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas improved five SEC wins over last year, and while it wasn't enough for some fans as the season actually played itself out, seven wins had to be considered improvement from an objective point of view from where the program was two years ago.
I'm not convinced either way about his ability to handle the job, and maybe I tend to lean a little to the negative only because the recruiting was so mismanaged with his first full recruiting class. Sorry, but John can't act as if that didn't happen. If Courtney Fortson leaves, the Fortson signing class will be left with one player after seven were signed (six actually showed up) and another committed but was never signed. It has all the appearances of a desperation reach for (with the exception of Rotnei Clarke) a lot of guys who maybe could play the game but had no business in college.
I say that, yet I still wonder why you bring in four guys only to run them off before they've even been around a year? Where was the due diligence check on their backgrounds and ability to handle college life and college coaching? I'm not convinced one way or another, but again I lean a little to the negative, of whether Pelphrey can take a tough kid, like a Fortson or a Jason Henry, and develop him or get him to conform to college basketball.
Where would Darrell Walker or Alvin Robertson be (oops, better we not mention Robertson these days) if not for the discipline instilled during their time under Eddie Sutton? When Eddie couldn't get the likes of Keith "Snake" Hilliard to conform one year out of junior college, he punted them. That happens. But Sutton was more likely to work beyond the frustration point to bring along a guy like Darrell Walker from a troubled background. Walker, to his credit, has said many times that Sutton saved his life.
Because no one was ever forthcoming on what went down after last season, I'll never fully understand why Jason Henry was sent packing after getting his grades in order in the summer while Courtney Fortson was retained and yet suspended for half a season. So, it's issues like this that have me unsure of Pelphrey's ability to direct a program whose fan base envisions it as a perennial national Top 15 program. This isn't South Alabama, but you would think Pelphrey and his staff were still recruiting to Mobile upon their arrival here in terms of character (not all, but some), size and overall ability.
The people who understand this better than I do say that the recruiting game has completely changed from the 1990s model we saw when Nolan Richardson built his national power. Relationships aren't forged overnight or in one year; they are developed over several years and the fruits of Pelphrey and staff's labor weren't realized until this most recent signing class and will be seen more so next year. He had a team loaded with front-line senior players when he arrived, and the rebuilding after that mass graduation and the loss of Patrick Beverley had to start with guards/perimeter players. Then they brought in Marshawn Powell in the next class and upgraded their backup big people. Next season, you'll see that the guards got another serious upgrade and that more shooters were added.
So, this has been a roundabout way of saying: Until we see enough good players on hand, it's difficult to make an immediate judgment of Pelphrey's ability to build the program to previous levels. Fans are stuck on a model of recruiting, where a program is turned around almost overnight, that simply isn't done anymore without relationships already in place. Before anyone points to John Calipari, remember that he had most of those freshmen joining him at Memphis before he took the Kentucky job, and he had them after years of building relationships. It took him a while to build Memphis to the level he left them. Bob Huggins and his assistant and now Kansas State head coach Frank Martin had relationships in place that they mined to rebuild the Wildcats fairly quickly.
Now, one last thing: There appears to be significant internal meddling of basketball from the administration, particularly with the way discipline was meted out last season, and that also would be a concern. This isn't meant as a criticism of athletic director Jeff Long - the reality may be entirely the opposite. However, because Long isn't forthcoming on the inner workings, we're left only with what we perceive is going on. And we're all well aware that at Arkansas it's never been a good thing when the athletic director thinks he needs to help a head coach run his program.