With the largest and most heralded recruiting class in over a decade combining with seven players that each have one start, it’s not that hard to see why the future is so bright at the University of Arkansas.
There are three very simple reasons for the optimism at Arkansas.
"There is an excitement in our program like nothing I’ve been around," Gardner said. "It starts with having the right staff. You come into the office every day and know that you have the right people around you."
Joining Johnnie Harris and Amber Shirey on the floor is former Colorado and Tulsa assistant Mike Neighbors. The Lady’Back support staff remains intact with Khadija J. Head back this season.
But, the coaches can’t take the floor. Seven returning players – each with at least one start in their careers – are the starting point for the season.
"Step two is having a group of seniors that really believe in the coaching staff, and are positive leaders," Gardner said. "They are seniors that I can count on as a coach, but also returning players that are examples of what I expect on the court."
Back from injuries for their senior seasons are the leading scorer, Sarah Pfeifer, and the leading rebounder, Danielle Allen, of Arkansas’ 2005 team that reached the second round of the WNIT. They are joined by three returning starters from last season: the team’s top scorer in SEC games in 2006, Leslie Howard; the starting point guard for most of the year, junior Brittney Vaughn; and explosive scoring wing, Dominique Washington. The Lady’Backs also return two sophomores, Whitney Jones and Ayana Brereton, that showed moments of brilliance as freshmen.
"Finally, we have six newcomers that will have an impact, but don’t forget that we also have two sophomores that are night and day from their freshman years," Gardner said. "Lauren (Ervin) has great promise, and the freshmen are so eager to learn. They look you in the eye and they are ready to be coached. All the newcomers are so excited and so excitable, you can’t help but be enthusiastic about this season."
The class of 2006 includes all-Americans like Kodak Junior College selection Lauren Ervin from Mt. SAC and WBCA high school honorable mention Tanisha Smith of Kansas City’s Lincoln Prep, but the rookies bring considerable depth to each position. Guards Donica Cosby of Coldwater, Miss., Charity Ford of Arlington, Texas, and Kendra Roberts of Fort Smith, Ark., along with post players Ervin, Smith and freshman LaKendra Spates of West Helena, Ark., give Arkansas more options.
"We have a lot of flexibility on this team," Gardner said. "Almost all of our posts can play high and low. Our guards can play the point or the wing."
With all that new talent on a 13-player roster, bringing everyone together on the same page becomes an important task. The Lady’Backs got a jump start as the entire team enrolled in the second summer school session.
"The team got into great shape in July and August, and that allowed us to get into the start of the semester and begin teaching rather than conditioning," Gardner said. "We are further along today than we have ever been before here at Arkansas because of the summer."
Arkansas begins its fall practice with great enthusiasm and team-oriented feelings, but youth-oriented teams often fall on hard times in the veteran-focused Southeastern Conference. The SEC is loaded with some of the top teams in the nation, and the Lady’Backs need an edge against America’s toughest women’s basketball league.
Gardner took a hard look at this year’s team and the past three seasons to create her game plan for the 2006-07 season. What she discovered over the summer was Arkansas had prepared for the wrong opponent the past few years.
"You get ready for your toughest opponent," Gardner said. "You look at the schedule card and think, OK, we need to be ready for this team or that team to reach our goals. Frankly, the three years I’ve been here, our toughest opponent hasn’t been anyone on the schedule. Our toughest opponent has been injuries."
Last season alone Arkansas lost three starters to season-ending events. The tone of the year was set in the Red-White Game when Pfeifer tore her ACL. What followed was a mind-boggling 68 player-games lost to injury. The Lady’Backs worked through eight starting lineups before settling on one starting five at the year not because it worked, but because they were the only players left healthy. Arkansas did not have its full 13-player active roster until the 16th game of the season, and only had a full bench for one other game.
"We needed to think about our offense and defense and stop seeing our team in terms of the numbers we give players – a one, or a two, or a five," Gardner said. "When injuries hit and suddenly you have Melissa Hobbs becoming a four player just because she’s tall, we have to go back to the beginning and teach her how to be a post to fit that number."
Gardner devised a new philosophy to take advantage of the flexibility of this year’s team and to minimize the impact of her toughest opponent. It is not a motion offense, but it’s not the old playbook either.
"It’s our job as coaches to teach them how to read the defense, and to give them options, not rules," Gardner said. "I want them to have ideas, not plays. Good decisions are the key. In this system, if one person goes down, you don’t lose the only person who may know that position.
"I try to change year to year and adapt to the team," Gardner said. "When you have a lot of set plays with cuts and screens as opposed to reading the defense, you become easier to scout. A team can become robotic. When they learn how to read, I have to give them the freedom to play."
Thus the Lady’Backs begin the season with a player-decision driven attack that is difficult for opponents to defend.
"It is all about reads and options, and it changes from player to player," Gardner said. "One player’s strength on a particular option might be the flare. Change to a different player, and the option becomes a cut. Another player, it’s a back-door option.
"It will look one way with five players on the floor based on their preferences and strengths, but put five other players on the floor using the exact same principles and it will look completely different. There are spots on the floor, but Brittney isn’t always the point guard. Sarah doesn’t always go to the high post. You can’t do this unless you have players with skills and ability. We have that this year."
The ability to morph the offense takes advantage of this year’s team.
"The creativity this system allows is important, but the key is knowing your teammates and knowing each others strengths," Gardner said. "As the season continues, they will become more fluid and we don’t want to hold them back."
On defense, Arkansas plays to its new team strengths again.
"Every year, we’ve started the season with the goal of being a pressing team, but once again, injuries have gotten in the way of those plans," Gardner said. "Man defense remains a big part of our game, but our quickness has increased and we are working on some aggressive zone defenses. Mental toughness is the most important part of our defense. It is a mind set."
Combining the freewheeling offense with an aggressive structured defense takes full advantage of Arkansas’ roster, but above all, Gardner wants this year to be a season where the effort turns into victories.
"I hear people say that your teams play so hard, but this year I see the potential for more rewards for this team for their hard efforts," Gardner said. "We want to go deep on the bench, and there are so many open positions this year."
With only four seniors and the new philosophy, the future certainly looks bright at Arkansas, but the future is on the court right now. Fans should be advised just like the team, they may want to bring their shades.