At least four publications think the Hogs will. Street & Smith’s College Basketball 2000, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, ESPN the Magazine and The Sporting News ranked the Razorbacks No. 12, 13, 17 and 22, respectively, in their preseason polls.
Blue Ribbon also picked the Hogs to win the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, as did the media at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala.
Arkansas won four games in four days, including three against ranked teams, to capture the school’s first SEC Tournament title last year and earn an NCAA Tournament bid for the 12th time in 13 years.
Richardson called it the most gratifying championship in his coaching tenure, which is quite a statement from the only college basketball coach to win a national junior college, postseason NIT and NCAA crown.
“The most important thing that we can take from all that is that you have to have confidence,” Richardson says. “I saw a similar situation a couple of years ago when we lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament and those guys came back knowing they had a chance to be pretty good. They went on to win the national championship. We just need to take that momentum, bring it back and try to bottle it.”
With only one senior gone from a team that fell just shy of another miracle comeback against Miami-Florida in the first round of the Big Dance, Arkansas is primed to make the transition from underdog to one of the nation’s top-ranked contenders.
“I think from that standpoint if (the players) didn’t expect to be picked at the top it would be a problem,” Richardson says. “As a coach I’m not very concerned about where they pick me, but it does bother me where I finish. The higher you pick me the more aggressive I feel like I have to be and the more I have to prove you right. I like to prove people right.”
Arkansas looks to have the firepower to make good on the early prognostications. The Hogs return 11 of 12 lettermen from last year’s SEC Tournament championship team, including four of five starters. Those returnees bring with them more than 80 percent of last year’s scoring, rebounding and minutes played. Only graduating senior Chris Walker (10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is absent from this year’s edition.
“I think that this team has a lot more skill players that have quickness,” Richardson says. “I think not only will this team have some offensive players, but we have some defensive players as well. I think we could have a good defensive makeup. We could be a solid defensive ball club.”
Richardson hopes experience helps offset some of the inconsistency that plagued his squad early last season. The Hogs must find ways to improve in the paint, on the perimeter and at the charity stripe if this year’s postseason run is to last longer.
“I still think we will be a little suspect in the rebounding department,” Richardson says. “At the same time, I think we will be a better rebounding team because we are more experienced. If you had to think of some areas we need to improve in, we hope to get better at the free-throw line and shooting from the perimeter. If we improve in those two and improve on the boards, we could be capable of doing some damage.”
One of the Razorbacks’ most potent weapons is 6-8 standout guard/forward Joe Johnson (16.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.0 spg), who racked up nearly every award imaginable in his freshman campaign despite playing just 23 games. The Little Rock, Ark., native earned his eligibility in December and was named the Associated Press SEC Newcomer of the Year, SEC Coaches’ Co-Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America by Basketball Times while also earning spots on both the AP and SEC Coaches’ All-SEC lists. He was the only unanimous selection to the SEC All-Freshmen team and earned a spot on the SEC All-Tournament squad.
Johnson, a preseason All-America pick by Street & Smith and Athlon, became the first freshman to lead the squad in scoring and rebounding, and the first Razorback to lead in both since All-American Corliss Williamson turned the trick as a junior in 1994-95.
“Joe is a guy that has a chance to be one of the best players to ever attend this university,” Richardson says. “He has so many skills. He can play all the spots. He can play the point or post up on the block. That really gives us some options. I think if you look around the league, he has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year.”
Blue Ribbon agrees and has named Johnson the SEC preseason Player of the Year as well as second-team All-America. The media at SEC Media Days also tabbed Johnson as the league’s preseason Player of the Year.
Living up to expectations is based on Johnson’s ability to recover from an ankle injury suffered while touring with the 2000 USA Basketball Young Men’s Qualifying Team in Brazil during the summer. Johnson dislocated the polonial tendon in his left ankle, but rehabilitated the injury and was back for the start of practice.
Johnson gets most of the attention, but the Razorbacks are far from a one-man team. Juniors Brandon Dean (8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Teddy Gipson (8.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) provided last year’s late-season spark that landed Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t think Brandon and Teddy think that Joe is the guy,” Richardson says. “I think the fans and the media might think Joe is the guy, but Brandon and Teddy feel like they can do as much as Joe. That is a good situation. The more people the opponent has to stop the easier it will get for everyone. When we played well down the stretch, everyone was involved.”
After shaking off early season injuries, Dean flourished in the SEC Tournament, capturing Most Valuable Player honors after averaging 15.2 points per game in the four-game stretch. If the 6-1 Monroe, La., product can stay healthy, he has the potential to be one of the most explosive players in the SEC.
Gipson, a 6-4 native of Farmerville, La., battled adversity throughout the 1999-2000 campaign, including the tragic death of his father in a car accident in January. Like Dean, Gipson turned it up at the end of the season, averaging 12.8 points in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Junior T.J. Cleveland (8.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.7 spg) is the leader of this talented squad. After missing the final eight games of the regular season, the 6-1 Cleveland returned for postseason play and immediately changed the complexion of the Razorback offense and defense. His flexibility gives Richardson an opportunity to use him as a starter or in the coveted sixth-man role.
“There is no question that he is going to be our floor leader,” Richardson says. “When he missed those eight games last year, we noticed him not being there more than any other player. His contribution of all the things he can do really helped us get as far as we did in the SEC Tournament. Without T.J., I don’t think we can survive.”
Senior Brandon Davis (4.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg), and sophomores Blake Eddins (3.2 ppg), Charles Tatum (3.4 ppg), and redshirt freshman Carter Clark give the Hogs additional perimeter threats. As the lone senior, the 6-4 Davis could fill the sixth-man role and will be called on to provide leadership. Eddins, 6-7, was the Hogs’ most improved player from a year ago and can be deadly from beyond the arc. The 5-10 Tatum has great scoring potential and also began establishing himself defensively late last season.
Six-two junior college transfer Jannero Pargo could also provide a lift from outside. Pargo scored 22.3 points per game last season at Neosho County Community College in leading his squad to a league title. He also gives the Razorbacks another ball-handler as well.
Arkansas also benefits from a young but experienced frontcourt which includes four returnees. Six-seven sophomore Alonzo Lane (7.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) leads the charge for the big men after manning the post most of last season. Lane flashed some of his potential last season, including a season-high 23-point outing against Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
“I was real proud of the way Lane played last year,” Richardson says. “The great part was that he had to play. He went against some great centers and held his own. There were times he just dominated the game. Consistency is what we will be working on with Lane.”
Six-eight junior Dionisio Gomez (1.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg), and sophomores Carl Baker (4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Larry Satchell (2.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg) will contribute as well. All three were forced into the lineup last season as first-year players.
Although technically a junior, Gomez has only one season of college experience, but Richardson is confident a year of battling some of the nation’s top big men in the SEC will make Gomez a factor.
Baker (6-8) started 14 games as a freshman and provided early-season muscle on the boards. He posted a pair of double-digit rebounding games in pre-conference play, including a season-high 15 boards against Centenary. Recovery from a nagging ankle injury should help Baker regain his quickness.
Facing perhaps the toughest assignment of any Razorback last season, the 6-9 Satchell performed admirably after joining the Hogs in mid-December. The Waco, Texas, product spent most of the season catching up with his teammates in conditioning and mastery of the Hogs’ offensive and defensive schemes. Satchell provided a shot-blocking presence in the lane and more rebounding muscle.
Six-nine freshman Michael Jones will get a look at forward in the preseason, but the Razorbacks’ depth down low may allow Richardson to redshirt the Little Rock, Ark., newcomer.
Arkansas once again faces a tall order when it comes to the competition on the 2000-01 ledger. The Hogs play 13 games against teams that advanced to postseason play last year, including 10 contests against NCAA Tournament teams. The league slate alone includes national runner-up Florida, and fellow SEC co-champions Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU.
The non-conference schedule includes a season-opening matchup with Tennessee State and new head coach Nolan (Notes) Richardson III. The opening round of the John Thompson Classic in Fayetteville, Ark., will also feature Garrett Richardson, the grandson of Arkansas’ head coach, a freshman guard at Tennessee State.
Match-ups against NCAA participants Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, along with a traditional battle with Memphis, highlight the remainder of the non-conference schedule.
“I think our non-conference schedule is good enough that we can build some confidence before we go into the murderous SEC schedule,” Richardson says. “You have Memphis, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and a possibility to play an awfully talented Louisiana Tech squad or Southern Miss team (in the John Thompson Classic). Just because some of the schools don’t have the big name doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be tough games.”
Arkansas doesn’t have to worry about the name recognition of its league opponents. In addition to the four SEC co-champions from last season, Richardson is expecting another tough battle in both divisions.
“I think South Carolina is going to be the team to beat over there (SEC East),” Richardson says. “Auburn was fortunate to beat them in the tournament last year. Tennessee has almost everybody back and Florida still has a bunch of good players. Of course you can never count Kentucky out, and Vanderbilt and Georgia should be improved.
“On our side, I think Alabama will be right up there. They had some guys sitting out last year and they have the chance to be really good. Ole Miss signed the top player in the state and Mississippi State should be solid. Everyone thinks Auburn and LSU are going to be down a little bit, but they still have some good talent.”
With another brutal schedule on tap, Arkansas will have to be on top of its game to make another memorable postseason run. Richardson is hopeful improved depth and experience will help make that a reality.
“We may set goals, but you can’t get to those goals until the foundation is built,” Richardson says. “The first foundation as far as I’m concerned is getting in the best shape we can get in. So that is what we worked on. We wanted to get stronger and quicker. We wanted to be prepared in those areas so that when it is time to play we will be ready to meet the challenge.”
The Razorbacks get things started with the Red-White game on Nov. 3, and exhibition games against the California All-Stars on Nov. 7 and the London Leopards on Nov. 12.