It’s been a long time since Arkansas basketball was relevant. You have go back to 2008 to find the last time they even made the NCAA Tournament. As the Razorbacks get set to tip off against Tennessee on Tuesday night (7 PM ET, ESPNU), they’re making noise. While the halcyon days of the 1994 national champions might be a ways off, this Arkansas basketball team has a core trio of players they can ride back into March Madness.
The talent starts with 6’11” sophomore Bobby Portis. In a college basketball world where there’s not a lot of great post talent, Portis averages 18 points/8 rebounds per game. He’s supported by 6’6” junior Michael Qualls, who averages a 16/5, and hits 37 percent of his three-point shots.
Rashad Madden is a nice all-around guard, averaging 10 ppg and dishing six assists per game. Beyond this core talent, Anthlon Jennings is another respectable three-point shooter who will be needed to keep defenses from collapsing down on Portis.
Arkansas is 15-2, and while the schedule hasn’t been great, they’ve got a nice win over Larry Brown’s SMU team back in November. The Razorbacks have also beaten Georgia and Vanderbilt to start SEC play, making Arkansas one of four conference teams to start league action 2-0.
The Razorbacks play at a rapid tempo. They average 84 ppg, seventh in the nation, and more impressive is that they do it with efficiency. Even if you take away pace as a factor and only measure points-per-possession, Arkansas is still the 11th-best offensive team in college basketball. It’s the kind of up-and-down tempo that the Hogs played under Nolan Richardson in the glory years of the mid-1990s.
But Nolan’s teams also knew how to play suffocating defense and it was that which gave birth to the nickname “Forty Minutes Of Hell.” This current team, under fourth-year head coach Mike Anderson, hasn’t performed on the defensive end nearly as well. Arkansas ranks 94th in the country in defensive efficiency and that’s even against a non-conference schedule with its share of cupcakes. They’re going to have to improve just to hold a mediocre ranking on the defensive end.
Anderson has produced winning teams in each of his first three years since coming to Arkansas from Missouri. The time has come to finally reach an NCAA Tournament. This Razorback team might not have overwhelming talent, the kind that’s going to make Kentucky tremble on February 28 when Arkansas goes there. But they have enough to finally return to the field of 68 come March.
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