FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas basketball coach John Pelphrey met with the media on Thursday. Pelphrey was named head coach on Monday. Following is a partial transcript of Thursday’s question and answer session.
“This is obviously a busy time of year. Any time you take over a program this time of year, if you have returning players, you certainly want to have a chance to meet with and talk to them; academically you want to make sure you have a good game plan and that those guys are doing the right things; and coordinating and putting together a staff. A lot of other things are also going on this time of year with recruiting, some scheduling opportunities and with my family making preliminary plans for relocation. I’ve been doing quite a bit the last few days, but I’m going to take some time and get some of those things knocked out of the way. Everything has been good. I’ve been very pleased with some of the conversations I’ve had with the guys and their attitudes and their excitement level about the potential for next year. It’s been overwhelming a little bit in terms of the support from the administration and the fans and community. It’s been very warming for both my wife and myself. It’s good to be a Razorback.”
Where are you in terms of assembling a staff right now?
“I have two young men in right now. Tom Ostrom, who was with me at South Alabama, is here. I also had a history with him at Florida. He’s going to be one of our full-time coaches. As I said at the press conference, I think Tommy is outstanding. I think he’s one of the best young coaches in the country. He understands the style of play, he understands recruiting, and he’s willing to work and get after it. Matt Figger was with me at South Alabama as well. He’s going to be in the position of our basketball director of operations. I feel like he’s one of the best in the country. I really, really do. He’s got a great understanding of me after having spent five years with me. He understands what I want and what I’m all about, and he’s going to be a great asset to us.
“There are a couple of other spots there. I’ve been talking to some folks and evaluating what is best for our coaching staff and what’s best for our program.”
Have you giving any thought to talking to Glynn Cyprien?
“I have a relationship with Coach Cyprien. We have spoken. Right now I’m heading in a different direction in terms of retaining anybody from the previous staff. It’s my understanding those guys all have some opportunities as well.”
Is your style going to be “40 Minutes of Pel?”
“I heard that the other day. I’m not sure what that is, but it was interesting to hear that. It didn’t take long for somebody to come up with something. My style of play is one which I think is my personality. It comes from being a player and playing for Coach (Pitino) and having success there (Kentucky). When I say success, obviously we won, but for me, individually I was able to compete, get better and help a team win. I by no means was Jamal Mashburn, but I was able to find a way in Coach’s style to help us win and be effective. Then as assistant coach with Billy (Donovan), Billy played for Coach as I did and he had a chance to coach with him. I think Billy believes in all the same things. My two most successful basketball teams were able to execute that stuff. Personnel does play a part in that, but that’s kind of what we want to do. We want to extend the floor both offensively and defensively, and be disruptive. At the same time, no coach wants to give up easy baskets. We have to be able to shrink the floor a little in the half court and prevent easy opportunities. Obviously the closer you get to the basket, the more you make and the more chances you have of getting fouled. Both of those things are bad. If we force perimeter shots that are challenged and get the rebound, that’s good for us. Offensively, we want to play as fast as we possibly can in terms of getting up the floor. If we can get open three-point shots, we’re going to look to take advantage of that. By the same token, we understand that you make more shots the closer to the basket you are with layups, post moves, drives and getting fouled. Those are important things, too. One thing I would say about this style of play is a lot of times people think when you play fast it’s perimeter oriented. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My first couple of years, playing for (Pitino), we always had the ability to shoot the ball from the three-point line, but we had no inside or low-post game at all. Jamal Mashburn gave that to us. If you have a combination of both, now you have a chance to be a potent offensive basketball team. I don’t think you can be one way or the other, offensively or defensively, and win at a high level. I think you have to have a combination of both. Your team needs to have something about it so that when you’re playing against extremes, maybe you’re playing against a team like Coach (John) Chaney at Temple in the past that played all zone or if you play against a lot of the Princeton-style of offenses, you have to be able to adapt and change maybe from game to game and win a game in a different way. At the core of what I want to do is fast-breaking and extending the floor defensively. If we’re not able to take it from you and wear you down, then we’re at least going to try to take 10 seconds off the shot clock and give you less time to operate in the half court.”
What kind of characteristics are you looking for in your two remaining assistant coaching positions?
“I would love to get it done as quickly as possible, but I’m going to take my time to make sure I get it done as efficiently as possible. At one spot I think I’m going to look for somebody who has some head coaching experience. There are some people I’m talking to. I want all these guys to think like head coaches. I don’t want to label them as just recruiting or just working with guards. I want these guys to come to me with ideas and to think like head coaches. That’s the way I was treated at those positions. I know they’re not all going to be the same, I know we all have different talent levels. I will expect everybody to be able to recruit, to coach and have some relationships with our players away from the floor. That’s really important to me.”
What do you plan to do with the scholarship spots you have?
“I don’t really have a timetable on that. This recruiting period runs into May. We’re going to be recruiting and we’re going to be exploring every opportunity to see if there’s anybody we can add to the mix to our team for next year that can help us. By the same token, we’re not going to just give scholarships away. They are too valuable. We’ll try to only take guys we know can help us.”
What is the status with Sean McCurdy?
“It’s my understanding that he has gotten his release. I have not had a conversation with him yet. Most of the guys have been able to stop by and see me from time to time. I encourage them to do that, although I’ve been in and out, too. I’ve missed one or two guys, but Sean and I have not had a chance to talk yet.”
Has anyone else indicated that they want their release?
Can you take us through the rebuilding job at South Alabama?
“The thing I felt very comfortable with going to South Alabama was that when (Pitino) took over at Kentucky, it was obviously in a rebuilding stage so I understood that. When Billy took Marshall, I was a part of that and when he took over at Florida. All I knew was to take a program when it was down, that had been good in the past and had a chance to win, that had won, that had good players and coaches, but is down and go build it up. That’s the way it worked out so that wasn’t a concern for me. The thing I think I misjudged was the 8-5 rule. When I got to South Alabama, there was a reduction of scholarships, the program was really bankrupt of talent and there wasn’t really a lot of continuity from one year to the next. The 8-5 rule is a horrible rule. You can sign a maximum of eight guys over a two-year period, but if any of those guys left, you couldn’t replace them for two years. And guys leave. There are transfers all the time. Our program at South Alabama was extremely successful with transfer guys. Transferring is not a negative. It can be a positive for those young athletes. Normally year three is what you build torwards. That’s when we had success at Kentucky. We made it to the Elite Eight game. Billy got his team to the NCAA Tournament. Year three (at USA), we weren’t there yet. We were better. I had three kids sitting out and players we had signed who were going to come in and have an impact, but the 8-5 rule slowed us down another year. Obviously in year four, everything really took shape the way it normally would in year three. I had not been a part of the rebuilding process with the 8-5 rule. Was I a better coach in year four than in year three? Probably not. The players got better. There was a sense among those players because of the building and the tough times of the previous three years. They became very selfless. That team was as selfless as you’ll find. They really served each other. The set their personal agendas aside and all they really cared about was winning. We lost only seven all year (24-7 in 2006). The next year (2007), we lost six of the top nine off that team. We had eight new faces, but we were able to repeat and have a level of success with basically a whole new team. We knew it would take a little bit of time to find the chemistry. We were able to have some repeat success in terms of winning our division and the regular season and post-season success with the NIT (bid). This team (for 2008 at USA) has eight of 11 back and a young man sitting out who played in the SEC for two years. So South, at least on paper, has a chance to have one of the best teams they’ve ever had.”
What is the key to going on the road and winning?
“When I got to South Alabama, we really struggled with that, too. I think by the end, we had more road wins than anybody else in our league or we were tied with Middle Tennessee. I think the No. 1 thing is don’t turn it over. It gets deeper after that. You have to get good shots, make a few shots, and limit the easy baskets you give up from turnovers, layups, poor transition defense, not keeping people out of the lane or second-chance opportunities. We’re going to be close. For the most part, games get decided under the five-minute mark. There has to be a level of toughness that it requires to get it done. There’s got to be an understanding of when that moment in time comes in the game or where the game is decided. You see certain guys do it. A great name from the past is Corey Beck. That guy understood winning. Whether it was diving on the floor and ripping a guy’s arms off to get a loose ball, making a tough layup, getting fouled and making free throws, picking up somebody full court and taking it from him; there’s an understanding and toughness where it’s not so much about making a great offensive play, but a physical blockout or stepping up and having the toughness to make a free throw. Those types of things are really important in understanding what goes into winning because many times the margin of winning is really, really small.”
Is the size Arkansas has an advantage or disadvantage in this style of play?
“It will be interesting to see. A strength of this team, in looking at it on paper, is frontcourt depth. I don’t know if it will be good to have a bunch of those guys running around out there in the front of the press. It may be good to have some of those guys in the back because of their shot-blocking.”