Arkansas' freshmen growing up on the job
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP)
Mike Anderson's first job as Arkansas' coach last March was to keep the school's heralded recruiting class together.
Little did Anderson know at the time just how important that class would prove this season - and likely in the future for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas (16-7, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) has yet to lose in Bud Walton Arena this season and is sixth in the SEC race at the midway point of conference play. It has wins over three ranked teams entering its game at Georgia (10-12, 1-7) on Wednesday and leads the league in turnovers forced (17.3) per game.
The success has been a refreshing change for a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament in four years.
By choice or by force, the Razorbacks have found their way with four freshmen forming the core - and often leading the way - in the first season under Anderson, who replaced the fired John Pelphrey.
The freshmen (BJ Young, Hunter Mickelson, Devonta Abron and Ky Madden) combined are averaging nearly 32 points, 15.2 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game. More important, they have provided fresh legs for an Arkansas team that entered the season with only 10 scholarship players.
And, as Anderson points out, they're just getting started.
''There is so much room to grow with this basketball team,'' Anderson said. ''As we speak right now ... when this is over, they're going to continue to change before your eyes. Going through what they are going through now right now can only, hopefully, benefit them.''
Anderson did his best to downplay the freshmen's impact before the season, but there was no denying their significance once the games started. Their impact only grew after the team's leading returning scorer from last season, Marshawn Powell, was lost for the season with a knee injury after the second game.
Powell averaged 19.5 points in those two games, leaving a void in scoring and leadership. Combined with the loss of senior Marvell Waithe with a calf injury in recent weeks, and Arkansas' four freshmen have made up exactly half of its eight scholarship players.
Anderson wanted the group to have the opportunity to blend in and develop at a slower pace, but he's excited about what he has seen.
''Well, they've been thrown into the fire, so now they've been learning on the job and it just tells you what kind of people, what kind of players they are,'' Anderson said. ''You look at their future: They've got a chance to have some bright futures.''
Young has been the leading scorer in Powell's absence, averaging 13.8 points and shooting nearly 50 percent off the bench. The guard scored a season-high 28 points in a loss at Connecticut on Dec. 3, and his explosive first step has proven the equal of just about any other guard in the SEC.
The 6-foot-10 Mickelson is fourth in the SEC with an average of 2.5 blocks per game. He needs only three to tie the school's freshmen record of 60, set by Oliver Miller during the 1988-89 season.
''I don't really feel like a freshman anymore,'' Young said. ''I never really did, because (of) as much as we've been playing.''
Young's early progress hasn't come without setbacks. He was held to only three points in a disappointing loss at LSU on Saturday, his lowest scoring output since a two-point effort in the opener.
The loss kept Arkansas winless away from Fayetteville this season, though they've stayed close until the final minutes in their last two losses. They've also continued to receive plenty of praise from opposing coaches, particularly the freshmen.
''I think it's just a matter of maturing,'' Georgia coach Mark Fox said. ''I think it will come. I just hope it doesn't come in the middle of this week.''
Pelphrey signed the class before his firing, but Anderson had to work to keep them on board following his arrival from Missouri in March. That effort has paid off this season and will likely do the same in the future.
''We're still young, still kind of figuring it out,'' Mickelson said. ''Coach Anderson, he's kind of laid it down on what we need to be doing, but we're going to mold into that with time. I think we're just going to keep working hard and getting better.''