While Bret Bielema's Razorback honeymoon progresses, Mike Anderson has moved beyond his initial grace period.
Anderson wasn't handed substantial largess for his first season as head basketball coach, and matters only worsened when Rotnei Clarke's constant flirtations with abandoning the program finally materialized late in the summer of 2011 and Marshawn Powell sustained a knee injury in the second game. The depth issue appears to have been rectified, though the results to date haven't borne that out — the Hogs are a pedestrian 5-4, and the defeats have proven one thing of note.
The Hogs desperately crave a third competent, dependable scorer. Powell and sophomore guard B.J. Young are throwing up 33 points combined per game; nobody else on the roster has been able to approach their production. In an era of college basketball where there is simply no time to break players in slowly, the urgency for Anderson to locate and utilize another weapon is feverish.
It's an odd quandary, frankly, because by all rights Mardracus Wade should've been that option. The slight junior guard became a fairly reliable perimeter gunner last year — though, to be blunt, not to the extent that Clarke had been — but he's looked considerably less confident in the early going of 2012-13. He's reached double digits only three times in nine contests, and disappeared completely in three of the Hogs' four losses. Wade has shown a knack for a silky stroke when a clean look avails itself in the half-court game, but he's not as safe a bet in transition.
This downturn has only been mildly offset by Hunter Mickelson's uptick. The sophomore forward has demonstrated more polish offensively, but still appears unwilling to be that consistent interior banger that Arkansas has lacked since, oh, 1993-95. He has tossed up almost as many three-point attempts (four) as free throws (six) through the first one-third of the season, a statistic that wouldn't be so bothersome if not for the fact that SEC play always brings heavier contact in the paint than the Alcorn States and Longwoods can muster. Mickelson may yet emerge as that coveted paint presence, but for now he's not logging enough minutes or sufficient touches to be viewed as a threat.
Coty Clarke currently sits as the third-leading scorer statistically, but largely on the strength of a 20-point burst in the opener. Since that time, the junior transfer has notched only 53 total points in eight games, and as with Wade, has been utterly silent in losses. As for Rashad Madden, he still hasn't flashed any sort of scorer's instinct, though his floor game is coming along. The batch of freshmen — Michael Qualls, Anthlon Bell, Jacorey Williams and DeQuavious Wagner — are likely too raw to be considered as that critical third arm of support.
None of this is said to demean what is clearly a deeper and more athletic roster than the one Anderson had to will to an 18-win debut campaign in Fayetteville last year. The heralded newcomers from a year ago have made some perceptible strides, and there are signs that Powell and Young will not only coexist but jointly excel as team leaders.
The problem is that Arkansas has had five "name" opponents on its schedule, and save for a whisper-thin home win over an Oklahoma squad that was far from imposing, the Hogs haven't been able to scale the proverbial hump in those challenges. They did play Syracuse reasonably well and put forth a strong upset bid at Michigan, but the four remaining games prior to conference play aren't likely to provide anything but a workout and the SEC schedule once again appears back-loaded.
That obviously would again stake the fate of the entire season on what happens in February and March, and whereas the Hogs weren't judiciously equipped for that stretch last year, this season could be different simply by way of quantity. Fred Gulley is now eligible and may be more helpful than expected if he can be the kind of pacesetter that Anderson's offense requires. And the contrast with John Pelphrey's recruiting remains evident and refreshing: Qualls and Bell aren't ripe, for instance, but they appear more basketball-ready than, say, Glenn Bryant or Marvell Waithe ever were. Anderson is understandably committed to finding present assets rather than long-term projects.
That is the right approach. Again, whether it will result in a return to the NCAA tournament this year hinges on the Hogs' ability to compile a ledger of high-quality wins and avoid those damaging late-season defeats. So far, even that uninspiring record doesn't cause them harm, as there is no shame in competing well against the likes of the Orange and the Wolverines.
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