Autumn temps are perfect for outdoor activities
This is the time for our end of second-quarter report for Arkansas athletics, and it's a generally glowing one, certainly and refreshingly free of things like sex, lies and motorcycle accidents.
And on that note we segue to the guy who changed the meaning of "BMFP" around here. Bobby Portis slipped inexplicably in the NBA draft, anywhere from five to seven picks down the projection board, and was passed over by teams in need of his blend of skills in favor of dubious selections without his resume. That said, the Chicago Bulls saw the prize at their beckoning at the 22nd pick, and grabbed the Little Rock Hall product with confidence. And while flurries of trades always accompany the occasion, it was clear quickly that Chicago's brass saw fit to retain what it had chosen.
Portis fits in nicely on a team that cultivated a winning pedigree under deposed Coach Tom Thibodeau. He's so skilled offensively that he more or less looks like the complement to Joakim Noah at that end of the court, with marginally less athleticism but a far more reliable shooting stroke. The Bulls became a year-to-year defensive nightmare with the likes of Noah inside and Jimmy Butler on the perimeter, but Derrick Rose's entirely unpredictable health meant that the offense was one of fits and starts. Butler has developed beautifully as the poor man's Dwyane Wade, a sturdy and multifaceted two-guard, but when the Bulls needed post offense this year the results were decidedly mixed. Noah's become an inexplicably terrible free throw shooter, Taj Gibson has essentially plateaued as a post scorer, and time isn't on Pau Gasol's side.
Enter the SEC Player of the Year, a player whose frame is still maturing to catch up with an advanced and very natural game. Portis won't likely follow up his collegiate apex with an All-Rookie accolade in the NBA, but he will not be under that sort of pressure. If he's capable of generating eight points and five rebounds per outing next year while making progressive month-to-month advancement, he's going to excite Bulls fans who remember a raw University of Central Arkansas product who meshed well with their franchise guard in the late 1980s en route to six titles in the next decade. That's not to heap undue pressure on Portis to reach Scottie Pippen heights, but Chicago could do far worse than taking an energetic, skilled, hard-working small forward from the South again.
It wasn't in the cards for Michael Qualls to get that kind of fortuitous plunge. Instead, the other Hog early entry suffered a devastating knee injury in Phoenix, and days later his name went uncalled. Every pundit knew Qualls was taking a substantial risk by departing after his solid junior year anyway, but the blown ACL cemented the fact that he'd be looking for an employer. There is always a shine on these things, though.
Qualls played his three years with considerable reckless abandon. He entered as a sleeper, three-star prospect with notoriety as an athlete that outstripped his basketball savvy. Arkansas fans saw him progress as a scorer, perimeter rebounder and defender, and crunch-time asset. Nevertheless, as he flung his body all over the hardwood of Bud Walton Arena and abroad, it was hard for anyone to imagine him maintaining that clean bill of health.
Time to rehabilitate should serve two purposes. One is that Qualls may necessarily come back with a more measured way of doing things. He's only just discovered that his body is not impervious to damage, and if the timing was terrible for that lesson, it at least should soak in. Second and perhaps most importantly, the time off permits the swingman from Shreveport, La., to find a niche that fits him later his year. He's likely to start out somewhere in the D-League, whenever he does get his health back, but he could also be an instrumental plug-in on a playoff team come next spring. Patrick Beverley had a less ceremonious exit from the Razorbacks a few seasons ago, and had to toil overseas a bit, but teams saw his court savvy and embraced it and he now is entrenched in Houston as the point guard of choice. Qualls may get the benefits of this misfortune much quicker than he anticipated.
Lastly on the prospectus from spring 2015, Arkansas baseball fizzled out in two close ones in Omaha, Neb., but again the way the tournament unfolded had to be encouraging. The same Virginia team that the Hogs battled in the opening game at TD Ameritrade Park ended up snatching the crown despite teetering on the brink of elimination twice in Nebraska and basically for weeks before that. The Cavaliers' status as national power without a trophy to support it is now over, against long odds, and if Dave Van Horn has a message going into 2016, it's that his squad could have very easily been in that position.
The departure of Andrew Benintendi leaves a hole, but it's one that recruiting generally fills: Arkansas has regularly found steady, mobile outfielders from abroad. The pitching situation appears considerably better now, even with Trey Killian electing to sign his pro contract. No one could have predicted Benintendi's meteoric rise from slap-happy freshman to being the first recipient of the major national player of the year award for the university in any of the three major sports. That's why Hog fans continue to flock to Baum Stadium in record numbers, this year sporting the second-highest attendance in the country. Van Horn has built something very steady and reliable, and it is that kind of model that his gridiron and court contemporaries want to emulate.