Arkansas is taking advantage of early schedule
Arkansas basketball coach John Pelphrey believes in tailoring a schedule to fit a team.
So far this season the philosophy has paid off for the Razorbacks, who are 6-1 after a win over Seton Hall last week. Despite the early success, Arkansas is 175th in the latest RPI rankings, thanks largely to a strength of schedule that ranks just 319th.
''I think there's a lot of factors that go into scheduling,'' Pelphrey said. ''As coaches, we always say it's the second-most important thing we do behind recruiting.''
The quick start for Arkansas comes after a disappointing season a year ago, one that saw the Razorbacks miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. That team struggled through turmoil and suspensions, opening the season 2-5 on its way to a 14-18 record.
This season, Arkansas has taken advantage of its soft early schedule. Its only loss came to Alabama-Birmingham (7-2) in overtime, and its top nonconference opponents (Oklahoma and Seton Hall) are a combined 10-9.
''I think we're obviously happy with where we're at right now,'' Pelphrey said. ''We would have liked to have won them all. But we also recognized we have a lot of work to do to get better because there's a lot of challenges that lie ahead for us.''
The biggest surprise this season for the Razorbacks has been the play of forward Delvon Johnson. The 6-foot-9 senior nearly had a triple-double against Seton Hall, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks.
After averaging just 2.6 points and 2.4 rebounds last season, Johnson is second on the Razorbacks this season in scoring (11.6 per game) and second in the Southeastern Conference in rebounding (9.1). He also leads the SEC and is second nationally in blocked shots, averaging 4.1 per game.
''I feel like that's a part of my game I'm good at,'' Johnson said. ''I read the offense. I help the guards out. If a guard drives past one of our guards, I feel like I can go over there and block their shot without them seeing me. That's something I worked on in the offseason, something I've been able to do but I'm just showing it now.''
Pelphrey raved about Johnson's offseason improvement during the preseason, and it's a jump the Razorbacks have needed with their frontcourt depth depleted by early injuries. Forward Marshawn Powell has been slowed in his recovery from a broken foot in the offseason, and forward Michael Sanchez has yet to play after sustaining a stress fracture in his foot.
''I expected it out of him,'' leading scorer Rotnei Clarke said of Johnson. ''He worked so hard in the summer in the weight room. It was just a matter of time, and he's showing up big and he's doing a lot of good things for us offensively and defensively.''
Powell has shown signs of improvement, scoring a season-high 12 points against Seton Hall. Also, Sanchez had his walking boot removed last week and Pelphre y hopes to have the junior back by conference play.
Johnson said the quick start, regardless of who it's been against, has helped build Arkansas' confidence. The Razorbacks will need that when they travel to Dallas to face No. 25 Texas A&M on Saturday, as well as when they open SEC play at home against No. 7 Tennessee on Jan. 8.
''We're real confident,'' Johnson said. We're very excited I feel like we just practice hard every day, work on the things we can work on and we should be good no matter who we play.''