Take a deep breath and step away from football. Come over to where you don't have to wait to cheer for a winner. Hawgball is officially back, y'all.
On this day exactly one year ago, I wrote that the Mike Anderson's 3rd season at Arkansas would result in a NIT bid. Not because of lack of quality wins or bad losses, but because of extremely poor scheduling. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. When the selection committee sat down and looked at Arkansas' non-conference schedule they said, "No thanks."
Coincidentally, SMU, a team Arkansas defeated at the beginning of the year, was also left out for the same reason. That sent a clear message to all bubble teams. You better schedule up in the non-conference.
Mike Anderson heard that message loud and clear. He has put together an exciting and challenging schedule for the 2014-15 season. The season that this program will finally go back to the NCAA Tournament.
November and December are littered with quality opponents that will impress the selection committee. Unfortunately, hardly any of them are at home in Bud Walton Arena. The four opponents that are currently ranked in the top 25 and all are road games.
The biggest upgrade to the schedule to the lack of RPI 300+ teams. This year, the Hogs added Dayton and a decent Wake Forest team. Only Delaware State finished worse than 4th in their final conference standings last season. Iona won the MAAC and Utah Valley won the WAC. Yes, those games aren't sexy match ups that will sell a lot of tickets, but they are a vast improvement from last season.
The Hogs will play on CBS twice this season. Both games are on the road. Florida and Kentucky are tough places to play, but these Hogs proved last season that they can win on the road. Hopefully, they can steal one of these two games.
Because of the SEC schedule, there is no reason these Hogs should lose more than four conference games. They should sweep all SEC home games this year. There is no reason they can't win road games at Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss, and possibly Auburn. Other road games are potential toss ups, because everyone struggles at times to win on the road in the SEC.
Enough about scheduling, let's talk about development and addition of players.
It all starts with Bobby Portis. Arkansas has a lot of depth this year, but Portis is the one guy they can't lose. He could legitimately average 18 points and 10 rebounds a game. There will be talk throughout the season that Portis could turn pro in the spring and be a high pick in next year's NBA Draft if he plays as he's expected to.
Joining Portis in the frontcourt, after the first two scrimmages it appears Moses Kingsley and Jacorey Williams are the most improved players down low. This could be Williams' breakout season. It finally looks like he is able to control himself while in the game instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The kid was raw when he got to Fayetteville, and after two seasons of work he looks like he's ready.
Kinglsey improved his offensive skills in the off-season. He is still going to be the lean shot blocker and rebounder off the bench, but look to him to score a few more points this season.
After redshirting during his transfer year last season, Keaton Miles looks to replace someone like Coty Clarke. They both have similar games, but Miles is much leaner and athletically gifted. Clarke was much more polished offensively.
Alandise Harris is back as a fifth-year senior. Because there is more depth in the post this season, Harris can slide out to his more natural 3 position on the floor, which would allow Miles and Williams to man the post. I know a lot of fans were frustrated by the lack of rebounding when the 6'6" Harris played the power forward position last year, but this scenario could help the team's rebounding significantly.
There should be plenty of flash and excitement in the backcourt. It looks like Rashad Madden will continue to run the point at least some of the time even though Anderson has said he wants Madden to be off the ball more this year. After his breakout junior season, another big season could impress the NBA scouts. At the end of the Red/White game, they ran that same isolation for Madden play that resulted in the a stick back dunk for Michael Qualls. While that is exciting, hopefully they have developed something else for real crunch time situations.
Qualls and Anthlon Bell are the other two returning guards from last season that saw significant playing time. Qualls is going to Qualls and there is no other way to put it. It's too early to tell if Bell has developed from being a streaky shooter to a reliable assassin from behind the arc.
Manuale Watkins is the other returning guard. I've heard rumors of him getting more playing time, but to me he looks like the third-string point guard for now.
This new crop of guards has a nice mix of guys who will have an instant impact and players who will eventually be key contributors. Anton Beard and Jabril Durham are the two guards that should have an instant impact. I was fortunate enough to see Beard play quite a bit in high school and that kid is a flat out winner. Offensively, he can do it all. Because of his size and youth, I'm concerned about how he will handle the transition defensively. The Razorbacks rely a lot of defensive rotations because of traps and pressure. If he can pick up on those rotations early, it will significantly help his chances at playing time.
Durham is just a solid junior college guy that every Mike Anderson/Nolan Richardson team seems to have. In the last two seasons it was Coty Clarke. The next two seasons it will be Durham. He isn't going to lose the Hogs any games this season, but he's also not going to be a go-to guy in the clutch. Expect solid ball handling and defense from him with a touch of scoring.
From what was seen at the Red-White scrimmage, it's difficult to project as much from newcomers Trey Thompson and Nick Babb. Babb has better size than Beard, but it may take him a little longer to adjust to the college game. They may not see as much playing time early on, but we'll see how they develop. Moses Kingsley didn't show much in last year's Red-White game either and he progressed nicely through the season. As you all know, Dusty Hannahs will sit out this season for his transfer year.
With the way football has gone the last three seasons, it's going to finally feel like the early 90's again in Fayetteville with the basketball program. It is the NCAA Tournament or bust for this squad, just like the good 'ol days.