With six returning players and six newcomers for the 2008-09 season, the challenge for University of Arkansas head coach Tom Collen is bringing his 12 players together as one team against a schedule featuring some of the top teams in the country and the always challenging Southeastern Conference.
The 10-year veteran coach understands exactly what lies ahead for the Razorbacks, but he also knows that this team of youth and experience can take on the task.
“I learned a long time ago to never underestimate the power of teamwork and the importance of chemistry,” Collen said. “The young women in our program at this point have been hardworking. The players that showed up this summer worked very hard and are committed to challenging for playing time. They want to take this program to another level.”
Last season’s 17-13 record was a similar mixed experience to this season’s roster – the fastest start in school history and an injury-riddled finish that left Arkansas with only eight healthy scholarship players. Facing the risk of losing another player to injury, Collen took the high road and ended his own streak of post-season appearances as a head coach.
“We could have played in the postseason, and we thought long and hard as a staff about whether or not we should go,” Collen said. “In the end, my being able to say that I’ve never missed the post season wasn’t as important as the health of our team.”
Opting out proved to be the first step toward building a more solid future at Arkansas. Collen and company began off-season workouts earlier than usual, and utilized the time to work with the six players that would be back to improve their individual skills.
“We all went right back to work in the spring, and we were happy with the way the players responded,” Collen said. “They worked hard all summer, and I think it will pay off this fall.”
Leading the veterans is a trio that made dramatic improvement last season with Collen: seniors Whitney Jones and Ayana Brereton, and junior Charity Ford. Before the start of 2007-08, Collen challenged the three lettermen to go from seldom used role players into dependable starters. The year prior to Collen’s arrival, the three players combined for 12.5 ppg. Brereton by herself averaged more than that during SEC games last spring (13 ppg) as she (11.5 ppg) and Jones (10.6 ppg) developed into double-digit scorers for the season. Before a nagging injury near the close of the season, Ford was also a starter in the double-digit range, closing at 8 ppg.
Collen needs the same kind of improvement from his three younger returning players. Sophomores Shanita Arnold (1.8 ppg, 1.5 apg), Brittney Richardson (3.9 ppg) and Ashlea Williams (1.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg) each had shining moments as freshmen, but Arkansas’ improvement in 2008-09 may rest on their ability to step up as young leaders on a very young team.
At the end of the day, Arkansas’ ability to mesh a very young team – five freshmen and three sophomores, plus a first-year JUCO transfer – decides the fate of the season.
“As I stated when I was hired, rebuilding is a process,” Collen said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve been very fortunate both as an assistant and as a head coach to move that process along at an accelerated pace.”
A recruiting class that was ranked top 25 after the fall signing period plays a major part in the speed of Arkansas’ return to post-season play.
“This year will be step two in the building process,” Collen said. “We built a solid foundation last season by installing our system both offensively and defensively. Our players worked hard to grasp a better understanding of what we expect, and never quit all season long.”
Led by a pair of top 100 recruits, point guard Ceira Ricketts and shooting guard Lyndsay Harris, Arkansas adds strength to its perimeter. Arkansas native Julie Inman gives the Razorback team another outside weapon as well as another point option. Forwards Ashley Daniels and Jamesha Townsend improve Arkansas’ wing and high post positions while junior college transfer Ashley McCray addd strength in the paint.
Collen will also play to the strength of his roster – smaller post players who can shoot outside and play an up-tempo game pace. The addition of McCray gives Arkansas another option inside, but as the Razorbacks found out last season that a three-player post rotation is vulnerable to injury. Arkansas lost its starting double-double post, Lauren Ervin, at the start of conference play. Williams suffered a season-ending concussion in the last regular season game. Jones missed significant time as a freshman with shin problems.
All this to say, don’t be surprised when Arkansas rolls with four guards.
“We may need to adjust to a more uptempo style to take full advantage of our personnel,” Collen said. “I hope our fans are not shocked if we put four guards on the floor. That philosophy will make us hard to guard, but it also may put us at a disadvantage on the boards.”
Part of the desire to go small and fast is in the combined strength and depth of Arkansas perimeter.
“I do believe we will have improved guard play,” Collen said. “We will miss Brittney Vaughn’s experience and competitive spirit, but I believe we will have better depth and overall skill at the position.”
Brereton and Ford give Collen a pair of solid returning players that can play either the wing or second guard. Arnold has a year’s experience in running the offense, and will battle with Ricketts and Inman for the point position. Ford started last year at the two guard, but Harris and Inman can both shoot and all three will compete at the wind guard position.
Nothing is settled as the Razorbacks head into the season, and that ability to go with the hot hand and players that can swap around perimeter positions gives Collen plenty of options.
“Look at just the point guard,” Collen said. “We return our back-up in Shanita that logged almost 20 minutes a game. All three of our freshmen played the point guard position in high school. That’s a lot of flexibility.
“Ayana and Charity are returning starters, and throw in Brittney Richardson, who at times was our most productive scorer off the bench, and we have lots of competition and depth at the guards.”
The high post is one of the more interesting spots for Arkansas, with newcomers Daniels and Townsend appearing the natural picks with their 6-2 frames, but as a part of Collen’s speed game, expect to see Richardson and Brereton in the mix.
“With our depth in the traditional guard slots, we may need to move an Ayana or Brittney into the four spot to give us a four-guard line-up,” Collen said.
The four-guard helps in the post, as the natural five-spot players – Jones, Williams and McCray – can become a three-headed monster in the paint rather than spread thin across the high and low post.
The Razorbacks won’t have a lot of time to experiment at their new positions since the schedule Collen has constructed presents several serious tests.
“Our biggest challenge is that our roster is full of youth, but our schedule becomes more difficult,” Collen said.
Arkansas keeps series with Big XII foes Texas Tech and Missouri, and adds a potential road game with the regular season Big XII champion Kansas State at the Commerce Bank Wildcat Classic. The Razorbacks bring Big 10 power Northwestern to Fayetteville, and match up with the Pac-10’s Oregon State on a neutral court in the Bahamas. If Arkansas gets by the Beavers, the reward will be ACC power North Carolina.
“This is a formidable challenge for our team,” Collen noted of his non-conference slate. “Throw in NCAA participants like SMU and a few great regional matchups like Louisiana-Monroe and Memphis and this will be one of the tougher schedules for the Razorbacks in recent years.”
It doesn’t help that once again, Arkansas seems to have drawn the wrong teams in the wrong years in the SEC’s 14-game rotation. The Razorbacks draw Florida twice, fresh from the Gators’ return to the post-season last year, and Auburn, who was back in the NCAAs last year and among the favorites in the SEC this year.
“Florida and Auburn might return more starters than any other conference teams,” Collen said. “Throw in two games with five-time Final Four LSU, and I doubt that anyone in the conference would want to trade their schedule for ours.”
In spite of the draw, Collen is quite optimistic.
“I look at our team and how hard they’ve worked early on, and even with that ominous task, I believe we will be better prepared to move up in the conference standings this year,” Collen said.
Always upbeat about his team’s prospects, Collen remains at heart a realist. He knows that bringing together his mix of players into one squad, one Arkansas team, is the key. The non-conference will test the Razorbacks and prepare them for the SEC challenge, but the fate of this year’s team rests with the team’s ability to come together quickly.
“Like I said, never underestimate the power of teamwork and the importance of chemistry,” Collen repeats.
Speaking of chemistry, then the equation for success at Arkansas is