What if? We ask this question all the time. In our jobs, in our lottery tickets, and especially in our Razorbacks. This summer, I'll be answering the what-ifs in Razorback sports. No negatives, like 'what-if Hunter Henry doesn't make the heave,' but a few fun ones and maybe some big ones, but in a fun way.
What if Michael Qualls had stayed in Fayetteville for his Senior Season?
In the 2014 Kentucky game, Michael Qualls gave us one of THE legendary highlights in Razorback history. It may be the most iconic Razorback basketball image most young fans will remember if they aren't old enough to remember the glory years.
Qualls came out as an even better player in the 2014-2015 season and it felt like his Robin to Bobby Portis' Batman might carry him into the 2015 NBA draft. Ultimately, Qualls went undrafted after a knee injury suffered in a pre-draft workout. While he did get a chance to spend some time around the Oklahoma City Thunder organization, he still hasn't found traction in a pro-league, and it remains to be seen if he will get a free agent chance with the NBA this year or take his talents overseas. I'm sure streaming numbers will double for whatever NBA Summer League team puts Qualls on the roster.
I can't say for certain it was a bad decision for Qualls to go out for the draft, but you have to wonder what would've happened had he stayed?
I think it's safe to assume we get a few more wins out of the team.
Let's talk starting lineup and minutes. In his junior season, Qualls averaged a team leading 30.2 minutes per game. That's more than anyone averaged during the 2015-2016 season. The predominant starting lineup the Razorbacks used was Jabril Durham, Anthlon Bell, Dusty Hannahs, Keaton Miles, and Moses Kingsley. Part of this worries me, because I don't think Qualls would've had much success being played at the 4 like Alandise Harris used to do, but maybe Hannahs doesn't get to shine as much as he did during the season if Qualls plays the three. I think ultimately Bell would've been the player to move to the 2nd team. Mike had him there early in the season, and he would not have passed up Qualls like he did Jimmy Whitt. You would've seen 67% of the minutes with Qualls playing with either bell or Hannahs and only 33% would've had the Bell and Hannahs team we saw so effective on offensive rotations. Keaton Miles and Many Watkins probably would each lose about 5 minutes a game as well.
Offense wasn't really the problem with the 2015-2016 team, but would adding Qualls have made it 4 players average 15+ a game? I doubt it. You probably would see a reduction in Hannahs and Bell's minutes that would've put them closer to the 12 points a game mark, but Mike always plays that hot hand, so you may have seen some of the large point outbursts from any of the three SG/SF trio. Qualls is very ideal for the motion offense that Mike runs and his presence would've opened things up for his teammates. His ability to elevate and shoot and to drive would've continued to draw eyes and leave Bell and Hannahs open for even more wide open 3's. Additionally, he was able to get to the line 204 times during his junior year, which was almost more than Hannahs and Bell combined.
Defensively, Qualls athletically is an upgrade over every player on the 2015-2016 roster not name Moses Kingsley. While he had stretches where his focus was less than stellar, he still challenged opposing players with his physicality, size, and quickness. It would've been interesting to see if he could take over a leadership role, but at the very least, he could've been another player with 3 years experience in Mike's defensive system.
Stats. The big one that jumps out is rebounding. Even as a sophomore, Qualls was 2nd on this team in rebounding. Every Arkansas team in the last 7-8 years could've used more rebounding. Qualls' defensive and offensive rebounding would've kept this team in a few games that got away.
16-16 is hardly a number to hang your hat on, but it was a good showing for this team. Even if Qualls had played at the exact same 2014-2015 level, it would have to be an improvement for the team, right?
Without going too far into it, I think Arkansas wins the following games with Qualls: Akron, Stanford, Wake Forest, Mercer, Dayton, @LSU, @ UGA, Auburn, and South Carolina (Yes, we lost this game by 15 points, but Qualls on Senior Night? He would probably go for 40). That's a 25-7 team that goes to the NCAA tournament.
Qualls is that kind of player, and if he stays uninjured and continues to improve both his game and his ability to lead? You might have seen an even more special season. Part of me looks at a player like Buddy Hield at OU and wonders if Arkansas could've had something along those lines (but obviously not exactly the same) with Qualls for a senior season. I do hope that players like Hield make some guys want to go to college for 4 years and not rush out the door for professional opportunities.
To be honest, this one kind of surprised me. There's no way I would've said Qualls could be a difference in 9 games by himself when this season started, but the way the team came together and players stepped up, I believe that would've still happened with Qualls still on the team.
Some NBA team is going to get really lucky to have Qualls on their team when he gets back to 100%. They might have to just give him his own segment on SportsCenter every night if he makes it in the regular rotation of an NBA team.