–Arkansas Razorback head coach John Pelphrey met with the media on Thursday to review the 2008 basketball season. The Razorbacks finished 23-12 overall and second in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division at 9-7. The Hogs reached the finals of the SEC Tournament for the second straight year and earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the third straight season. Arkansas advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a win over No. 24 Indiana before falling to No. 1 North Carolina. Following is a partial transcript of Pelphrey’s press conference.
“A lot of times throughout the course of the year, I wasn’t ready to heap praise on anyone because we knew we had a lot more battles to fight. I want to say thank you to the seniors for allowing our staff to coach them. It was a difficult situation with a new staff coming in. I’m very, very appreciative of them. Across the board, those guys allowed us to coach them. We wanted them to be selfless, grow closer as a team and play hard every night, and they tried to do those things.
“Gary Ervin may have made the most progress of any of them, especially since he was at the point guard position. It’s hard to have any success without a good point guard. He allowed us to coach him and he got everyone on the same page until the bitter end.
“Darian Townes had a phenomenal year. Look at his stats. He had a great career.
“Vincent Hunter – I couldn’t be more proud. He was the leader and the heartbeat of our team. Everything he did was based on being a Razorback, not on how many minutes he got.
“Charles Thomas started off well. It’s a long season and we all have ups and downs, but he had a great finish for us. He had that memorable performance against (No. 4) Tennessee (24 points, 10 rebounds).
“Everyone knew what a special player Sonny Weems could be. All we wanted was to speed up the RPMs and he did that. When you’ve been blessed with those tools and you’re coachable, you will have success. What a night he had in the NCAA Tournament against Indiana (31 points on 12-of-14 shooting).
“Steven Hill was our best defensive player. What a memory he gave us with that shot against Tennessee (game-winner with 5.3 seconds left). He was selfless and all about the team. He’s in the top five all-time in blocks in the SEC. That’s an impressive record.
“Again, I want to say thank you to that group. I believe they care about the University of Arkansas and they love being Razorbacks. It’s not over for them. Whatever they do, we want to see them attack other areas of their lives like they did this one.”
The seniors playing professionally:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all six had a chance to play. There are a lot of different places to play now. Used to, the NBA was about your only option and teams overseas could have only one American. Now, there are several spots overseas.”
Key moment during the season:
“I would say the late night, early morning practice after the Georgia game because of what happened afterwards. The resiliency of this team surprised me because we were so good at home and so bad on the road. That (practice) had a big impact on the team across the board.
“Other moments would be Steven’s shot (against Tennessee), Sonny’s performance (against Indiana) and Charles against Tennessee.
“It seems like when we came down the stretch of games at home or at neutral sites, we won. Stan Heath deserves a lot of credit for bringing those young men here. They had a level of success. We wanted to take that and overachieve.”
Looking ahead to next season:
“We’re losing 70 percent of our scoring, 63 percent of our rebounding and 63 percent of our assists. That means we have 30 percent of our scoring, 37 percent of our rebounding and 37 percent of our assists back. As daunting as that is, there will be wonderful opportunities for somebody.
“You don’t know how (new) guys will respond. There is an adjustment period. You never really know.”
Incoming freshman Andre Clark, who practiced with the team during the spring semester:
“He did well. He had not played basketball for a really, really long time. He had knee surgery and he was walking into a college practice at the highest level. He made a lot of progress and will get in individual work.
“He’s 6-9 and athletic, and has ball-handling and perimeter skills for a guy his size.”
Incoming freshman Rotnei Clarke:
“He had a wonderful high school career. He scored more points than anyone in the history of high school basketball in Oklahoma. That doesn’t mean he will come in here and do that, but he has the capability of stretching the defense and he has some play-making ability. He’s the type of young man you want to be around on a daily basis.”
Incoming freshman Courtney Fortson:
“He competed against some of the better names across America (at prep school). He did well in those matchups and his team won. He’s tough and he’s mean. With Courtney, Rotnei and Patrick Beverley, we have the chance to have guys who play off each other. I think they could mesh together very, very well.”
Incoming junior Daniel Payne:
“He has very good size for a wing. He can play four different positions and he can guard four positions. He needs to get in here and work. I love his competitive nature. He doesn’t take a play off.”
Incoming freshman Brandon Moore:
“He’s a lot like Andre. He’s capable of playing our style. He’s fast and athletic. He’s a good shot blocker and is capable of guarding four positions.”
Redshirt freshman Michael Sanchez:
“He got better during the year. He’s a tremendous handler and passer for a guy his size. I love Michael Sanchez. Is he an all-league player? I don’t know, we all aspire to that, but I know I can go to battle with him.”
Junior to be Michael Washington:
“He’s the only frontcourt player coming back who has ever bounced a ball in a collegiate game. He has tremendous potential. He helped us win games this year. We don’t do what we did without him. I believe he will blossom. He has the tools, but his attitude is what will give him the chance to do that. We will have to rely heavily on Michael, and I have no problem with that.”
Junior to be Patrick Beverley:
“Can his scoring go up, it could. Can it go down, it could. He needs to have a great summer and continue to grow. He needs to become better at reading the pick and roll, jump shooting and off the bounce. He also needs to improve his leadership on and off the court.”
“We have a scholarship and we could always use perimeter shooting. You never really have enough of that. There are always additions and subtractions to your roster, but I do not anticipate anything.”
Style of play:
“I would love to have (this year’s) frontcourt all the time, but I would also like to have more guard depth. There was not a lot of competition in the backcourt. In my best-case scenario, we would have two guys at every spot. Competition brings out the best in everybody. I like depth.
“I would like to have extended the floor more in terms of more man-to-man. That would have been difficult with basically three guys in the backcourt.”
Junior to be Stefan Welsh:
“He made progress at the end of the year. His attitude got better. If you look at the games we won, he had a hand in it. He played well for maybe the last month of the season.”
Expectations for 2009:
“I don’t know if we will be more talented, but we certainly will not be more experienced. We want to do well in our non-conference season, compete for the (SEC) Western Division title and then the overall title, and be a part of March Madness. That’s hard to do, but those will always be the expectations. Whether those are realistic or not, those are the goals.”
“We’ll play Baylor in North Little Rock, Texas and Oklahoma at home and we go to Missouri State.
“I liked the balance this year. We always try to challenge ourselves with teams as good or better than us, but you can’t get too top-heavy or too bad. It’s hard because you never really know.”
“We will probably be involved in some type of exempt event.”
2008 attendance (17,148, best since 2000):
“I felt this was a place people would be excited about the university and what we do with basketball, and I haven’t been disappointed at all. We were fortunate to lose only one game here (at home). Even throughout that game, I thought the fans would bail us out.
“If there was a down moment for me, it would be the loss in North Little Rock because of the environment.”
Sophomore to be Marcus Britt:
“I have a comfort level with Marcus. He has an SEC skill in terms of they way he plays defense. He needs to close the gap offensively, but he’s made progress in practice. It just hasn’t gotten into the games.”
First-year experience as Arkansas head coach:
“I had a very good frame of reference for Arkansas, being a head coach in the SEC and with this type of schedule. I felt very comfortable and wanted to help the team be better than it was the year before. We had to convince those young men they could trust us. That usually takes six to eight months, but we didn’t have six to eight months. As well as I thought I understood the situation here, I was even more blown away by the people of this state. I love being the Razorbacks head coach.”