It has almost been a week since college basketball programs got back on the hardwood to begin practice. Few of you may have noticed this, though most fans are too consumed with what their football programs are doing right now.
I am no different, but to avoid harping on SEC officials incompetence or writing about their long overdue suspensions, I have decided to report on something brewing in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Operation "40 minutes of Pel" is starting to gain steam.
Following Arkansas Razorbacks basketball has been a roller coaster of emotions for over 10 years. It has been 15 years since Nolan Richardsons' national championship team.
Young college basketball fans do not even remember when Arkansas was a top basketball program in the nation. Yet, many Arkansas fans still live in the mindset that Arkansas basketball is a top national program, and Bud Walton Arena imposes before all as a testament to what once was a great basketball program in the hills of the Ozarks.
Arkansas basketball is the program that dared to go toe to toe with UNLV, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and Dukes of the world in the 90's. With tough, hard-nosed players from rougher areas of the Southeast and Mid South, Nolan Richardson forged a winner out of raw talent, blood, sweat, and tears.
The Razorbacks went to back to back national championship games in the mid-90s, winning the first and losing the second in a close battle with UCLA. It is that level that Coach John Pelphrey, the current players, and recruits strive to return to.
The History hangs from the rafters for all to see. Bud Walton has mementos in every corner and on every wall of the Palace that Nolan built. Interestingly, it was all built in Barnhill Arena.
I was there "the night the lights went out in Barnhill" and, interestingly, Pelphrey has talked about rekindling some of that old flames and playing a game or two in Barnhill. He is not sure if that is possible or what he would have to do, but he knows that place gets loud.
Now lets see where the past and the present come together.
During the 2008-09 season, a young Razorback team led many to believe Arkansas basketball was back. Early wins over Oklahoma and Texas, both top 10 ranked teams at the time, had everyone believing the program had turned the corner. In fact, Eddie Sutton the Hall of Famer and past Arkansas and Kentucky head coach of John Pelphrey were in attendance for one of the huge upsets.
The great beginning did not have a Cinderella ending.
As the Razorbacks entered SEC play, they won only two league games as depth, departures, and a slew of off court incidents ensued. The only returners last year with any playing time were Britt, Washington, and Welsh—and they were merely backups two years ago—so while the flashes excited us what was to be expected?
Failing to reach the NIT Tourney, let alone the big dance, brought out critics.
Many believe John Pelphrey is now on the hot seat. If the president of the university and the athletic director stating they are behind Coach Pelphrey is not enough for you, then take it from me, Pelphrey is going nowhere. Just wait I will back it up.
Pelphrey came into a program that lacked discipline.
The players had underachieved for years on the court and off the court. Yes, there has been a fair amount of headlines in the two years Pelphrey has been coach, but he has acted swiftly. Suspensions and dismissals from the team have been handed out with no hesitation.
Last week, Pelphrey met with media and supporters and answered questions about the state of the program. There are six newcomers—much like a year ago.
However, this season the Razorbacks return an All-SEC player in Michael Washington and a slew of veteran players. The most notable returners alongside Washington are Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke. Unlike last year, the six newcomers will be relied on for depth, not to start.
The newcomer most likely to make a big impact before the season is over is Marshawn Powell. Powell was a top 100 recruit and has enough size and speed to make him tough to cover by smaller forwards and guards, yet enough quickness to make it difficult to be guarded by larger forwards and centers. His talent level will not allow teams to double down on Washington who led the Razorbacks in points, rebounds, and blocks last season.
Where Coach John Pelphrey really has got steam going is on the recruiting trail.
For the 2010 class, Pelphrey currently has two four-star recruits committed. Mardracus Wade (6'3" and 170 lbs) from Memphis, who is now at Hargave Military Academy is a player the analysts say may be the best all around defender in the class. He brings the toughness that great Hogs of the past from the Memphis area brought. He himself has spoken about Arkansas needing to reestablish themselves in the Memphis area since many of the greats came from there.
Rickey Scott (6'3", 195 lbs) is the second one for the 2010 class. Scott is from Irving, Texas and has the shooting and finishing ability that scouts say will allow him to be a big time player at Arkansas. He gets to them rim and has the ball skills and outside shot to be a threat all over the court.
Rounding out the 2010 class, Pelphrey is known to be in hot pursuit of two outstanding top Juco players.
Marvell Waithe (6'9", 215 lbs) originally a Mr. Basketball in Canada in 2006 and a player who committed to the Rutgers. Waithe was one of the top scorers in the Juco ranks last season and has developed his game and grown in size. He was highly rated out of high school, but would have been higher if he was larger in stature. A picture of him now will show you that is no longer a weakness.
Waithe's commitment is expected any day to either Arkansas or Rutgers—where he originally committed out of high school. Waithe has the inside game as well as shooting a high percentage from the perimeter to make him the perfect fit for Pelphrey's brand of basketball.
Ricardo Ratliffe (6'7", 200 lbs) is the other top Juco player Pelphrey is known to be after. A four-star prospect originally from Virginia, Ratliffe was a former AAU teammate and friend of current Razorback freshman Marshawn Powell. He has high interest in the Hogs and Pelphrey is pursuing him heavily. He is one of the leading scorers and rebounders in the Juco ranks. A time frame for his decision has not been set.
The future also looks bright.
The 2011 recruiting class appears to be in line to be one of the best in a long time. This class includes the "Baby Wings." This is a group of star Arkansas Wings AAU players all ranked in the top 65 recruits in the nation for 2011.
Pelphrey already has the commitment of Aaron Ross—a four-star member of this group. Recently, Ky Madden, a five-star member of the group and Hunter Mickelson, another four-star member of the group, have made unofficial visits to campus.
Just imagine three players all ranked in the top 65 nationally that have been playing together in competition since they were well "babies." Talk about team chemistry. These three know everything about one another on the court, and probably a ton about each other off the court as well.
On the top of the most wanted list are some of the top recruits in the nation right in Pelphrey's backyard. Pelphery also has his eye on recruits Adonis Thomas (five stars, Memphis), and Wayne Martin, Jr. (four stars, Florida) for the 2011 class. You could not ask for recruiting to be going any better. It appears that things are coming together so that in two years, Arkansas will be back on the national basketball scene as a top program.
But what about right now? Be patient. Much like the monster Pelphrey is building, I am getting there. Lets tie together everything we have covered now.
What brings the current players and these new recruits together is the love of defensive up-tempo basketball.
Coach Pelphrey preferred style is no secret—up-tempo, full court press basketball. It was this style of ball and the success he had coaching South Alabama that got him the job at Arkansas. Also, it was this style that Razorback fans became accustomed to under Nolan Richardson. The same Nolan Richardson that had the Razorbacks as one of the premiere teams in the country during his tenure.
Now, this is not Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of Hell—yet. But this is John Pelphrey's 40 minutes of Pel, so dubbed by Arkansas fans last season during the 12 of 13 start that begin last season.
The reason that this season and future seasons are going to come together is because for the first time since stepping on the Arkansas campus, Pelphrey has the athletes and depth that fit the style. The holdovers from the Stan Heath era were hardly equipped to play this style of ball.
Last year, in year two (as has been stated), the Razorbacks relied heavily on freshman as starters. This season, those young players who were baptised by fire along with the upperclassmen led by Micheal Washington will be who is relied on.
The young incoming players will provide the depth that Pelphrey has not had in his first two seasons as the Arkansas head coach. These players,all described by their high school and Juco coaches as gritty defensive-minded players,will allow Pelphrey to run his press. They all have the depth,the skill set and ability to play in Pelphrey's 40 Minutes of Pel.
Now the writers just picked Arkansas to finish fifth in the SEC West; not a big surprise.
What will be a big surprise is where the Hogs actually finish the season, and where the Hogs go the following season if the machine Pelphrey is building keeps building steam, has a good attitude, and loads of energy. When everything comes together with this talent and coaching and they play Pelphrey's style, this season I see the Hogs improving enough to be a top team in the SEC West for years to come.
People too often overlook the flashes of brilliance and talent that showed up in the early 2008-09 season run—which included the two top 10 wins. That talent is improved and crucial depth has been added behind each and every one of the returning players.
The returning players know what to expect. They have been through it. Courtney Fortson said it best last week in front of the media. "Win..Just Win."
That is what they have to do to get the program rolling forward and silence critics, and that is what they intend to do this season.
This year, as the Hogs enter SEC play, expect to see a team gaining steam, not running out of gas.
Marvell Waithe has committed to play for Coach John Pelphrey and the Razorbacks next season.
Also, 4 Star 2010 Forward Tarik Black has listed the Razorbacks in his top 5. This could be a very interesting development. If Black joins Wade on the Hill that will be two top players out of the Memphis area from the 2010 class. With the recruitment of Thomas following in the 2011 class the Razorbacks could be built much like they were in the ninties under Richardson. Memphis basketball talent is like their B-B-Q... MMM MMM GOOD.