FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) – The starting lineup includes three freshmen and a couple of former role players. The bench is boosted by a wide receiver who decided to play basketball when his NFL career wasn’t working out.
This is the best team in the Southeastern Conference?
Arkansas hasn’t won a league championship just yet, but right now the Razorbacks are perhaps the country’s biggest surprise. After losing their top five scorers from last season, the Hogs are on a 10-game winning streak and appear poised to enter the Top 25.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” freshman point guard Courtney Fortson said. “We’re a young team, but we play like we’re a very experienced team.”
The Razorbacks made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year in John Pelphrey’s first season as their coach, but after losing several seniors and sophomore Patrick Beverley, Pelphrey admitted in October his team was rebuilding.
Not for long, apparently.
After being picked last in the SEC West in a media poll, Arkansas is off to a 12-1 start. For a while, the Razorbacks were playing overmatched competition, but nobody can use that excuse anymore. Last week Arkansas beat then-No. 4 Oklahoma 96-88. The Razorbacks then outplayed No. 7 Texas down the stretch in a 67-61 victory Tuesday night.
“Any time you have the whole country coming in thinking that you’re not very good and you’re very young, you’re too raw, you’re going to finish last in the SEC … you always have to go and play with a little chip on your shoulder,” guard Stefan Welsh said.
Welsh was Arkansas’ leading returning scorer from last season – he averaged all of 5.3 points per game in 2007-08. Michael Washington was also back, but he’d been inconsistent his first two seasons with the Razorbacks and nobody was sure if he could handle a bigger role.
So far he’s been more than capable. The 6-foot-9 Washington is averaging 18 points on the season. In his last three games, he shot 75 percent from the field.
Fortson has been another key to Arkansas’ success, averaging 15 points and seven assists and constantly pushing the ball upcourt to help the Razorbacks keep the pace quick. Fortson had a triple-double in his seventh college game.
“He’s got a short memory,” Pelphrey said. “If he makes a mistake, he’s not too worried about it, and he gets on to the next play.”
Freshman Rotnei Clarke and redshirt freshman Michael Sanchez round out the starting lineup.
Less than a month ago, 6-foot-6 Marcus Monk began practicing with the team. He was a wide receiver for the Razorbacks, but he’s now working toward a second bachelor’s degree after struggling to gain a foothold in the NFL. Monk scored 12 points against Oklahoma.
A bit deeper in the rotation is guard Stephen Cox, who has also been a member of the Arkansas golf team. On this team, if you’re wearing a uniform, you might play.
“Whoever puts one on is liable to get in the game for us, whether it’s a golfer or a football player,” Pelphrey said.
The Pelphrey era at Arkansas began by accident. When Stan Heath was fired in 2007, the Razorbacks hired Dana Altman. After his introductory news conference, Altman changed his mind and went back to Creighton. Pelphrey took over a week later.
Pelphrey, who played at Kentucky, has gone out of his way to show respect for Arkansas’ tradition. His latest move was to wear a gaudy red jacket during the Razorbacks’ win over Texas.
“I just wanted everybody to know what side I was on,” Pelphrey said. “I wanted to make sure that was very, very clear. I was choosing sides.”
Eddie Sutton, the former Arkansas coach who also coached Pelphrey at Kentucky, was in the crowd Tuesday night, and he met with the Razorbacks before the game. Nolan Richardson is also back in the fold, nearly seven years after being fired by the school. Richardson will be honored at Fayetteville’s Bud Walton Arena on March 1 at what promises to be an emotional celebration of his 1994 Arkansas team that won the national championship.
This year’s team might not be a national title contender, but with the SEC opener against Mississippi State coming up this weekend, the Razorbacks have given their passionate fans a lot to be excited about in a season that began with such low expectations.
“Age and inexperience doesn’t mean you can’t have a level of success,” Pelphrey said. “The thing we’ve talked about from day one is just – have a great attitude. Let’s play hard and demonstrate our understanding of what it’s all about to be a part of a team. Then the more committed we become to defense – those three things will put us in a situation where we might have a chance to overachieve.
“If you can overachieve, then that’s really all anybody can ask of you.”