Below is the second and concluding part of our recent Q&A with ArkansasSports360.com Editor Jim Harris (here's part one). In today's installment, we ask Jim about Courtney Fortson's future, the search for a new assistant coach and his take on the incoming recruiting class. Muchos gracias, Señor Harris.
Expats: There seems to be at least some mild rumblings that Courtney Fortson may leave before next year to play professionally, perhaps in Europe. What is the likelihood of this happening and how big of a blow to the program would his departure be? Could it end up being a net positive for the team?
Harris: If you were guaranteed the Courtney Fortson of the first 11 games or so in SEC play this past season, you'd be begging him to stay. The last seven games of the regular season and, for whatever reason, much of the Georgia tournament game, we saw the Courtney Fortson of his freshman SEC year. In fact, since he was averaging nearly 7 turnovers a game over that late stretch while his assists dropped off, I'd say we saw a regression [from his freshman year]. Some of his late fall-off has to be credited to a better book on him by SEC opponents - playing more zone, refusing to allow him to drive and dish, forcing him to the right side of the floor for his inconsistent shot. Arkansas countered at times by putting him on the wing instead of up front, which helped the offense some.
All these are wasted words, of course, if Fortson bolts for Europe or some other destination for professional ball (you know it won't be the NBA). I sense that he's out of here. They MUST, however, get him academically in shape through this semester before he leaves so that the [effect on] the APR numbers is a wash (if a player leaves for professional basketball in good academic standing, you are credited with a point against the one you're losing for him leaving the program, hence a 0).
Anyone can see that, while he's a great and exciting player and capable of unbelievable games like this past year's home win over Mississippi State, the overall chemistry is not good and certainly not consistent. Look at the second LSU game, at Baton Rouge, for a good example where mostly all he did was point fingers of blame at teammates and appear frustrated all game.
His play late in the year probably wasn't all his fault, but he's your starting point guard. At times, he stirred the drink as well as anyone could hope. He temporarily offered some get-tough leadership this team needed. But down the stretch, all that went south and eventually that has to fall back on the player.
Jeff Peterson, the transfer from Iowa who sat out this season, is certainly no Fortson at the point in terms of exciting, high-speed play, involving other players with his passing ability, and possessing the ability to get you 30 points on a given night. But the net result in terms of leadership, valuing the basketball and getting it into the right scoring hands regularly (especially when things aren't going well on the road) should be better over the course of the season.
Expats: Last week, Pelphrey announced that he is looking for a new assistant, sparking a day or two of fairly wild rumors. Any idea about whom he is likely to hire? Can we expect a new assistant to make much of a difference?
Harris: It's probably going to be a former head coach — I'm nearly sure of it — but Pelphrey and the program would be better served if he hired a sharp younger guy who displays the passion and ability to be a future head coach and who will recruit like a madman. I guess I'm describing a guy that one day you would see successfully leading a mid-major, the way Mike Anderson showed his abilities at UAB, or the way Anthony Grant caught everyone's eyes at Virginia Commonwealth. Or, dare I say it, the way John Pelphrey built the South Alabama program back up and became attractive to Arkansas (well, he was attractive after a dozen others said "no" and Dana Altman hung around for one day).
The thing is, if Pelphrey does hire that assistant like I describe, our fan base will say, "Who?" For impact's sake, for the sheer PR, somebody likely will be influencing Pelphrey to hire someone that makes the fan base say, "Yeah, there's a guy I know. Good hire. He can help."
As for the last question, how can the new assistant not make much of a difference, unless he's just ignored.
Expats: What is your assessment of the incoming recruiting class that Pelphrey has assembled so far? Is there enough there to help spark a turnaround next year?
Harris: It's a good class that has a chance to be very good if the Hogs add 6-foot-8 juco transfer Ricardo Ratliffe, and it can be great if they add a beefy 6-10 space-eating player to go with him. They are recruiting a junior college player of close to that size, and they also are still on a high-school possibility who is a slender 6-9 but "long."
As for juco players, Ratliffe apparently is all that in terms of scoring points inside, but consider that one ranking I saw recently placedas the No. 5 juco player in the country. Clark, of course, was dispatched off of last year's Hog roster after an indifferent freshman season. So, consider that junior college players rarely are going to show up at a 4-year program and dominate like they did in junior college. The Larry Johnsons (the UNLV great) are the exception rather than the rule.
The guards who have been recruited are "big" guards of the size we'd expect for the SEC. Rickey Scott and Madracus Wade, both reportedly 6-foot-3 with the ability to shoot and defend, will upgrade the backcourt significantly. Jeff Peterson, the Iowa transfer, is barely 6-1, though. They'll be longer inside with 6-8 juco transfer Marvelle Waithe, but the people who have seen him tell me he plays soft and would rather hang on the perimeter. He'll either toughen up against the likes of Alabama and Ole Miss inside or he won't help a whole lot.
Ratliffe, Peterson and those two freshmen guards, combined with what returns (Powell and Rotnei Clarke, mainly, but I also like Glenn Bryant's upside) would improve you at least six overall wins, I believe, and two wins or more in the SEC. The SEC isn't going to go from mediocre to 1995 level overnight - it may NEVER get back to that level. In the West, LSU will only be slightly improved. Auburn will suffer. Alabama will be a little better. Mississippi State should drop some, and Ole Miss will be about the same. So why wouldn't winning the West be a great goal for Pelphrey and crew to aim for.
Expats: Speaking of recruiting, how well do you expect the Hogs to fare with the state's vaunted, sainted and holy Class of 2011?
Harris: I expect Arkansas to sign the committed Aaron Ross and Ky Madden, and I hope that Pel can sway Hunter Mickelson and therefore land all three. I think another top prep player in the 6-10 category could be a Hog. But Arkansas' fan base, mainly the ones who feel like they have to vent daily on radio shows and message boards with the same tired refrain every day about the coaching situation, aren't helping recruiting one bit.
It ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy for them: They whine endlessly that Pel can't do the job and won't win, and then the recruits decide they don't want to be a part of all this drama and, voila, he doesn't win. He's going to win if he has the players, and he's not going to win if he doesn't. Simple as that.
Expats: Gut feeling: is John Pelphrey the Hogs' head coach come April 2011?
Harris: Yes, but ask me again when I know for certain Ricardo Ratliffe is enrolled, dressed out and playing for the 2010-11 Hogs.