FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) After its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, Arkansas enters this season facing a rebuilding effort following the departures of leading scorers Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls.
Just don’t tell that to Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson.
“We’re not going backward,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s confidence aside, expectations for Arkansas this season are as low as at any point during the coach’s five seasons. The lineup will be missing six of the school’s top seven scorers from a season ago.
The most significant loss from last season’s 27-9 team that finished second in the Southeastern Conference is Portis, the league’s player of the year now with the Chicago Bulls.
Portis averaged 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds last season for the Razorbacks, helping serve as the most recognizable and important player during Anderson’s return to Fayetteville, where he previously served for 17 seasons as an assistant under former coach Nolan Richardson.
Losing Portis after two seasons will be difficult, but the Razorbacks will also miss Qualls, the team’s second-leading scorer (15.9 points per game).
And perhaps even more devastating were the offseason arrests of three players on allegations of using counterfeit money – charges that remain unresolved. Among the three players was All-SEC freshman point guard Anton Beard, who was expected to take on a leading role this season but is currently suspended.
The Razorbacks were picked by the media to finish 11th in the 14-team SEC. It’s a position Anderson isn’t accustomed to, though his players are embracing the role of underdog.
“We know people are counting us out right now, and that’s OK,” senior guard Anthlon Bell said. “We’ve just got to come out on the court every night and prove that we’re still here and there’s no letdown coming.”
Some things to watch as Arkansas tries to avoid a letdown:
JIMMY BUCKETS: Anderson’s top recruit last season was Missouri high school standout Jimmy Whitt, who averaged 30.6 points per game during his senior season. The 6-foot-4 guard joins a team desperately looking for scorers, and Whitt is expected to fill that role from the opening tipoff.
BELL’S RANGE: Bell is Arkansas’ leading returning scorer after averaging 7.9 points in 18.3 minutes per game last season, during which he hit 35.1 percent of his 3-point attempts. The 6-foot-3 senior has been the Razorbacks’ most likely 3-point option the last two seasons, but he’s likely to take on an expanded role this year.
HANNAHS’ ARRIVAL: Dusty Hannahs averaged 7.7 points per game as a freshman at Texas Tech two seasons ago, though he sat out last year after transferring back to his home state. The 6-foot-3 guard brings a reliable outside shooting touch, having hit 36.9 percent of his 3-pointers with the Red Raiders.
STEADY IMPROVEMENT: Arkansas’ win total has increased in each of Anderson’s four seasons, improving from an 18-14 record in 2011-12 to 19 wins a year later and 22 two years ago before last season’s NCAA Tournament team.
IN LIMBO: Anderson said Beard and transfer Dustin Thomas, another of the three arrested this summer, are still enrolled in school while awaiting the legal outcome of their case. The third player arrested, Jacorey Williams, was dismissed from the program after averaging 4.8 points per game last season.