|B.J. Young, left, is a raw and fantastic talent. If he has a big year, the Hogs should be NCAA-bound. (US Presswire)|
The complete shift in program identity it still underway at Arkansas. Mike Anderson made the hop from Missouri to the Razorbacks last year. The team was pretty much the definition of average. And that's fine; it's almost part of the deal these days in college basketball. That first year is always filled with kinks.
Now comes year two, and Anderson's roster is fleshing out to his desirability. The team was up for an overseas trip this year, and the choice was Italy. Leading up to the trip earlier this month, Anderson decided not to run his team ragged. In fact, in the team's workouts during the summer -- prior to the NCAA-allotted 10-day practice periods just before the trip -- Anderson didn't want anything resembling practice. All his team did? Shooting drills. Just informal stuff all around, with assistants running the show.
And in the practices leading up to the trip, it was primarily learning offensive sets for this team. Anderson wants his group to know how to take care of the basketball before dedicating a lot of his team to molding his team into knowing how to disrupt opponents' ball-handling responsibilities.
With nearly half the team coming in as newcomers, it's a big undertaking.
What Anderson learned: Anderson said he likes instincts in players. He likes to bring guys in who have innate abilities to play in his system. It goes beyond defense. Things like making the extra pass without having it beaten into one's head during practice after practice is big for Anderson. In Europe, the coach saw just that, and it only improved as the team's competition level went up.
Anderson said this wasn't the case last year,when it lacked depth and true grasp of basketball instincts. The team started 16-6 but finished 2-8 down the stretch. It didn't play in the postseason beyond its opening-round loss to LSU in the SEC tournament.
Who stood out: The obvious pick is sophomore B.J. Young, who Anderson said has come back a "much better basketball player" and has a better grasp of what it takes to play at the SEC level. Outside of Young, junior JuCo forward transfer Coty Clarke, was a surprise. Despite his 6-7 frame, he led the team in rebounding. For his size, Anderson said he plays the game the way you want it to be played.
"He has a lot more skills than I anticipated," Anderson said.
Biggest concern going forward: Defensively, the team has more options than last year, which is obviously a good thing, but at this point, he wouldn't even narrow it down to a specific strategic problem with the D. The coach said his team needs to "make a mark." There isn't consistency or "pride" at this point. Hey, the team can move the ball and can score with ease right now, but Arkansas should again be on pace for more than 70 possessions per game if it doesn't stymie opponents.
- A subjective note here: The Hogs are definitely going to be better this season. Junior Mardracus Wade is a breakout-player pick from Anderson.
- Anderson said the first team his guys played in Italy was of mid-major caliber, and that Arkansas "out-talented" them. If they were looking for a real challenge, they got it in the team from Lithuania, a damn good squad that defeated Purdue and Georgia this summer. Anderson had a choice to play another team in the days following, but it was a patsy. So we wanted a second go-round against Lithuania. Arkansas won both meetings and finished its trip 4-0.
"It was OK, but to me it wasn't about the basketball games, but a chance to see everybody," Anderson said. "I wanted to see what they brought to the table."
- Of course the team got in as much of Italy as it could. They went into the Colosseum. They saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Anderson thought it was extremely educational. Walking the steps of Pisa proved quite a workout, too. In fact, Anderson posed the question to them: Would they rather run Cleveland Hill or Pisa?
- Anderson said with confidence: This team is more athletic than the 2011-12 version.
- Marshawn Powell is not yet back to 100 percent with that right ACL injury, but he did spend some time on the floor in Italy. He's getting there, and Anderson said he could be in the starting lineup by the time the season starts.
- To show you just how fast the summer's passed us by: Arkansas is already in its second week of classes.
- I pressed Anderson for a starting five. And he wouldn't budge. Does it mean starting spots are up for grabs? Possibly. He named off eight guys worthy of starting time as of now. Long way to go -- but not too long -- until practices begin, still.