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The What-If Game: Razorback Basketball Edition

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This man would have looked mighty nice in a Razorback uniform. Photo by Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE
This man would have looked mighty nice in a Razorback uniform. Photo by Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

In his entertaining and humbly titled "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," Bill Simmons devotes a chapter to playing the what-if game. Over the course of a mere 58 pages, he ponders such questions as: What if Len Bias hadn't overdosed, what if Memphis instead of Cleveland had landed Lebron James, and what if the 1984 draft (the one where Michael Jordan, incredibly, was only the third pick) had turned out differently?

That got me to thinking about some of the what-ifs of Razorback basketball. Below are five questions that are sure to keep me up the next few nights and might provide some good conversation topics for my next court-ordered counseling session.

* What if Anfernee Hardaway had chosen Arkansas instead of Memphis State? Nolan Richardson's Razorbacks became wildly successful in large part because he was wildly successful in signing Memphis prep stars. Todd Day, Ron Huery and Corey Beck are a few of the Bluff City natives that helped make the Razorbacks Top 10 mainstays from the late 80s through the mid 90s.

But Nolan and the Razorbacks came in second to Larry Finch and the hometown Tigers in the fierce 1989 recruiting war for Hardaway, the No. 1 recruit in the country at the time and almost certainly the best Memphis prepster ever. Anfernee more than justified all of the hype: possessing a staggeringly complete game, he became a first-team All-American and, as a pro, was a four-time All-Star and two-time member of the All-NBA first team before injuries derailed his career.

Can you imagine Hardaway joining the likes of Day, Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller, and, later, Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman in Razorback uniforms? Wow. If that had happened, it's not too hard to imagine another national championship banner hanging in Bud Walton.

* What if Rotnei Clarke and Glenn Bryant hadn't transferred and Marshawn Powell hadn't blown out his knee? Clarke would have provided the outside shooting this year's Hogs so desperately needed and Powell the inside scorer they so desperately needed. If nothing else, the athletic Bryant would have added some much-needed depth, but it's entirely possible the 6'7" forward would have excelled in Mike Anderson's style of play.

His track record suggests Anderson will get the basketball program back on track, but had these three guys been around this year, I think Arkansas already would have made the first NCAA appearance of the Anderson era.

* What if Joe Kleine had signed with Arkansas out of high school? Kleine of course would go on to become one of the all-time Razorback greats but he initially chose Notre Dame over Arkansas and spent his freshman season (1980-81) as a member of the Fighting Irish. If Kleine had instead signed with the Razorbacks straight out of high school, he would have spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as a teammate of Scott Hastings. As things played out, Kleine had to redshirt Hastings' senior season after transferring to Arkansas.

Hastings and Kleine both spent the bulk of their NBA careers as towel-waving 12th men, so it's easy to forget how great they were in college. With Kleine at center, the slender Hastings could have slid to his more natural position of power forward and perhaps been even more effective in a Razorback uniform. College basketball was very much a big man's game in the early 1980s, and Kleine and Hastings were two of the best around. 1978 might not have been the only time Eddie Sutton guided the Hogs to the Final Four if those two had been able to play together.

* What if Chris Jefferies hadn't transferred after the 1998-1999 season? Jefferies looked to be the most promising member of the recruiting class that enrolled in Fayetteville in the fall of 1998. A 6'8'' forward who could score around the basket and who also had a decent three-point shot, he averaged nearly 8 points a game as a rookie and led the team in scoring (16 points) in the last NCAA Tournament victory of the Nolan Richardson era.

But instead of becoming the next Razorback star, he abruptly transferred after his freshman season to Fresno State, where he averaged 15 and 17 points as a sophomore and junior, respectively. He was selected in the first round of the 2002 NBA Draft by the Lakers.

It would have been really interesting to see what he and Joe Johnson (who arrived the year after Jefferies left) could have done together. At the very least, it's hard to believe the 1999-2000 season would have been as wobbly as it turned out to be, which may have bought Nolan Richardson some more time to return the program to a Final Four level. Speaking of which ...

* What if Nolan Richardson hadn't gotten fired? Nolan already had the extremely talented freshman J.J. Sullinger on his roster, and he had assembled a highly touted recruiting class headlined by Andre Iguodala, who turned out to be a pretty good NBA player, when he got canned before the 2002 season ended.

Suppose for a second that something had happened that season to enable Nolan to hang around - maybe the team wins a couple of more games, maybe Nolan doesn't blow his top at that press conference, whatever. The 2002-2003 team very well could have marked the beginning of a turnaround.

Alas, we'll never know, as Nolan got the boot, Sullinger transfered to Ohio State and the recruiting class, with the exception of Jonathon Modica, headed elsewhere.