The good news for second-year head coach John Pelphrey is several players in his highly-regarded signing class have the opportunity to make an immediate impact this season. Pelphrey’s newcomer class is ranked No. 11 in the nation by ESPN.com, No. 13 by CBSSports.com, No. 16 by Rivals and No. 24 by Scout.
The concern is the reason for that opportunity because the Razorbacks are missing four starters, seven lettermen and six seniors from last year. Loaded with experience, the 2008 squad went 23-12, finished second in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, reached the finals of the SEC Tournament and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas must replace its entire front line where four-year lettermen Steven Hill, Darian Townes, Charles Thomas and Vincent Hunter have departed. Also gone is All-SEC wing and NBA Draft pick Sonny Weems, guard Patrick Beverley and point guard Gary Ervin.
“We had six seniors (last year) and they certainly did a tremendous amount for the University of Arkansas,” Pelphrey says. “They went to three straight NCAA tournaments and got us our first (NCAA Tournament) win in nine years.”
Along with that group, the Hogs are missing 86 percent of the scoring (2,233 of 2,593), 83 percent of the rebounds (975 of 1,180), 87 percent of the free throws (447 of 514), 77 percent of the three-point goals (160 of 207), 79 percent of the assists (400 of 505), 85 percent of the blocked shots (154 of 182) and 81 percent of the steals (195 of 241) from last season.
Starter Stefan Welsh (5.3 peg, 2.1 assists), a junior, is back on the perimeter along with sophomore reserve Marcus Britt (0.8 peg). Welsh (6-3, 185), who is the top returning scorer from last year, started 21 games and shot well at the end of the season when he made 50 percent of his threes or better in four of the final six games. Over the final six games, he averaged 6.2 points and made 11-of-21 threes (.524).
“He had a good summer and fall,” Pelphrey says. “Both he and Mike (Washington) have played at a sustained level longer than they have in the past. Stefan, because he’s a guard, can be more of a vocal leader. He’s done very well with the team in terms of work and attitude, and I couldn’t tell you how many shots he’s made.”
From his freshman to sophomore season, Welsh improved his scoring average from 3.2 to 5.3, his assists from 27 (0.8) to 74 (2.1), his shooting percentage from .308 to .364, his three-point percentage from .303 to .333 and his steals from 10 (0.3) to 24 (0.7).
Britt (6-3, 198) saw action in 21 games with one start, and had 11 assists with seven turnovers.
“He has improved,” Pelphrey says. “He had limited opportunities last year, but he’s better than he was last year. He’s not very vocal, but he’s a great encourager. He has an SEC skill in guarding. He is an SEC defender. He just needs to make that corner shot. He did it last year, but he didn’t get it into games, but again, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities.”
Another returnee in the backcourt is junior Stephen Cox (6-3, 201), who averaged 0.2 points in 10 games as a reserve.
Newcomers could make the biggest impact outside with the addition of freshmen Rotnei Clarke, Courtney Fortson and Jason Henry, and junior Montrell McDonald.
Clarke (6-0, 184) is the all-time leading scorer in Oklahoma prep history. He led Verdigris to the Class 3A state championship while averaging 40.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists. He made 159 three-pointers during the season. Arkansas made 207 as a team in 2008.
Fortson (5-11, 180) earned a rating as the seventh-best overall player in the nation by Takkle/Sports Illustrated. He led The Patterson School to a 34-2 record last year with averages of 25.0 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 steals. He was named Mr. Basketball by the Alabama Sports Writers Association in his home state following his senior campaign at Jefferson Davis High.
McDonald (6-5, 181) is a junior transfer from Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kan. He helped Cowley finish 31-3 with a Jayhawk Conference championship by averaging 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 blocked shots and 2.1 steals.
Henry (6-6, 189) averaged 28.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists as a senior at West Memphis High.
McDonald will probably be counted on to fill the spot vacated by Weems with Henry competing for time as well. The other guard spots should be a combination of Britt, Clarke, Cox, Fortson and Welsh with the possibility of more than two on the floor at the same time.
Despite the heavy losses inside, there is a pair or returnees who could be ready for starring roles.
Junior forward Michael Washington (6-9, 239) has started 10 games in his career and freshman forward Michael Sanchez (6-8, 236) is in his second season after redshirting last year.
Washington averaged 4.3 points and 3.9 rebounds. His 62 offensive rebounds were second on the team to Townes (77). Washington played 10 or more minutes 27 times and 15 or more 14 times.
“Any success we have will come from our two (scholarship) juniors – Michael and Stefan,” Pelphrey says. “We have no seniors. Those two have to be there from a work ethic and leadership standpoint, and they have to be committed. Those two will have bigger roles. Michael is not a vocal guy in terms of leadership. You can look at him and tell he had a good off-season. The way he’s been playing, he has our attention.”
Sanchez picked up valuable game experience in the summer. Selected to participate in a Reach USA tour of China, he played with other collegians in five exhibition games against Shan Dong Gold, the third-ranked professional team in China. He made 19-of-34 shots (.559), and averaged 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was sixth on the team in scoring, and second in both rebounding and field goal percentage.
Freshman Andre Clark joined the team at mid-term and redshirted during the spring semester. Clark is a 6-9, 218-pound forward from North Little Rock High School West. He earned Class 7A all-state honors as a senior in 2007 with averages of 17.0 points and 6.0 rebounds.
The one true newcomer inside is 6-9, 215-pound forward Brandon Moore of New Orleans, La. Rated the No. 34 power forward in the nation by Rivals, he averaged 17.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocked shots as a senior at Holy Cross High. Rated the No. 126 prospect overall, he averaged 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocks as a junior.
Washington and Sanchez should carry the load inside early, but Clark and Moore will definitely figure into the rotation with McDonald and Henry options as well.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount to replace, but we’ve got a time frame to be able to do it in and be successful with this upcoming group,” Pelphrey says. “I’m really excited about the young kids that are coming in. The team will rely heavily on the passionate fan base we have. Our fans have a huge, huge impact on winning and losing, and we need that more than ever this year.”