Primetime in The Palace

by October 18, 2011

FAYETTEVILLE, AR – This wasn’t vintage Hawgball.

No wave and after wave of full-court pressing, frenzied and ferocious to the point of making opponents simply want to lie down, curl up and whimper. No fire-eyed coach prowling the sideline, arms waving, spit flying, orchestrating it all. No Hogcall filling the entire arena with something like the other-worldly wail of 20,000 sports-crazed Caspers.

More accurately, Friday’s night’s “Primetime in the Palace” at the University of Arkansas wasn’t the long-awaited return of Hawgball yet.

It’s been well over a decade since Nolan Richardson and his staff smashed through college basketball using full throttle, defense-oriented basketball as their title-winning club. But with the March hiring of Mike Anderson, Richardson’s chief lieutenant for three Final Four appearances and the 1994 NCAA Championship, expectations for a return to past glory have skyrocketed.

“Primetime in the Palace,” featuring a dunk contest and a glorified pickup game, represented the world’s first taste of Arkansas Razorback basketball under Anderson. There were tantalizing morsels:

Freshman BJ Young of St. Louis provided a few.

As seen above, the 6-2 guard won the dunk contest by skying over a student manager, then started the scrimmage by flashing extremely quick reaction time. After attempting an alley-oop for Marshawn Powell, who missed it, Young immediately scampered to the ball and hit a short jumper.

Young’s end-to-end court speed with the ball is breathtaking, not unlike that of a former Kentucky Wildcat guard.

When he had the ball in the open court, Young simply John Walled past whomever stood in his way. Check out his acceleration at the 24-second marker:

These kind of jets got me wondering if Young is already the fastest Razorback of all time.

Another freshman, Devonta Abron, showed he can do work inside. The Dallas area native scored at least two baskets with a nice lefty hook, and as he extends his range it’s not hard to imagine the 6-7, 255-pounder getting beastly on some box scores. His most impressive attribute at that size is sheer athleticism, which he flashed through the dunk contest and with little jig he danced during player intros.

At this level, though, every team has plenty players who can crank out YouTube highlights worthy of a hundred up-turned thumbs.

It’s clasped hands, though, which make teams special. So far, it looks like this team has that camaraderie stuff down pat.

Exhibit A: the entire team didn’t have to jump to their feet and rush the court to congratulate a non-scholarship player who had just flushed home a reverse. Julian Spivey isn’t even officially on the team yet, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the big names have embraced him:

Effort makes teams special, too. Especially effort which goes well beyond the kind needed to simply keep an athletic scholarship, to the point where its possessor appears slightly unhinged.

Freshman guard Rashad Madden didn’t have to attack the rim so hard that his momentum carried him into the third row from Bud Walton Arena’s court, his flying foot just clipping the ponytail of a young fan. But he did, because he has that edge coaches love. Look for Madden (6-5, 175) and Young to become Anderson’s most disruptive backcourt defenders.

Before the game, Mike Anderson told the crowd: “We’re gonna work diligently to put Razorback ball back on the map.”

It won’t be easy.

Friday night was all fun, games and smiles, but the Razorbacks have serious unanswered questions heading into an early season schedule culminating December 3 on the road against defending national champion Connecticut:

1. With the premature departure of Rotnei Clarke, who picks up the outside scoring slack?

No one person. Few players in the nation bring the outside heat like the 6-1 Oklahoman, who last season nailed 45-95 three-pointers for the Razorbacks. But Rot transferred to Butler for his senior season, leaving senior Julysses Nobles (12-33 three-pointers) as the Hogs’ best perimeter threat.

Big man Hunter Mickelson likely has the best outside stroke of the Razorback newcomers, but what BJ Young and Rashad Madden may lack in outside proficiency, they more than make up for in ability to penetrate to the basket. If they keep to their strengths as freshmen, and resist taking too many rushed outside shots, they could still combine to lead the the Razorbacks in three-point plays—of the “and one” variety.

2. Who guards the basket?

All-SEC defender Delvon Johnson, who shares honors with Steven Hill as the Hogs’ best shot-blocker of the last decade, graduated. Senior Michael Sanchez (6-8, 236) had recent back surgery and could be out through early November. Right now, the Hogs must rely on freshmen Mickelson (6-10, 236) and Devonta Abron, as well as senior Marvell Waithe (6-9, 216).

Waithe, who has actually bulked up since last season and cut his long hair, is a role player. Mickelson is long and very active, but he and Abron will take their bumps early on as they adjust to college competition.

How fast these bigs adjust will go a long ways to determining whether Arkansas can spring an early season upset against UConn, which features superfreshman Andre Drummond (6-10, 270) and Storrs’ very own Charles Oakley, Alex Oriakhi.

3. Has Marshawn Powell fully recovered physically and emotionally?

Two years ago, Powell burst onto the SEC scene as one of the league’s best power forwards by putting together one of the best freshman seasons in UA history (14.9 points, 6.7 rebounds).

Last season, though, was one spent in Regress City.

A pre-season broken foot started things off badly for the Newports News, VA native, while slow recovery, weight gain and game-time displays of sulking only made everything worse. All in all, a pretty forgettable sophomore campaign.

So far, Powell appears to be flourishing under Anderson. He’s slimmed down to a lean 220 pounds and will soon have all his old quickness back. Most importantly, he seems to be enjoying himself and his teammates. Rickey Scott told Powell is a “different person” this season.

4. How will the top bench players perform?

Developing quality depth is an issue with any team. But it’s exceedingly important here because a) off-season transfers reduced the Razorbacks to only 10 scholarship players, which means b) there is less coal in the furnace to stoke Mike Anderson’s version of “40 Minutes of Hell” brand ball.

Two sophomores whose roles should increase significantly from last year are guards Rickey Scott (6-3, 195) and Mardracus Wade (6-2, 178). Foot and knee injuries kept Scott out most of last season, while Wade chipped in 3.6 points in 17 minutes per game.

Both players shot well in Friday night’s abbreviated game, with a healthy Scott looking especially impressive (12 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists).

Although sophomore walk-on Kikko Haydar likely won’t see much action against top opponents, don’t discount his importance to the team. The 5-10 Fayetteville native helps keep his teammates competing hard on the court, and stay unified off it. A top-notch student who gets a full ride through academic scholarship, Haydar may be the perfect roommate for BJ Young.

And visa versa, when it comes to learning how to kill it with flair:

See more video at Demirel’s blog, which affiliated with Sync Magazine.