The spring has been, if nothing else, an unprecedented one for Arkansas Razorback individualism. Bobby Portis took his justly due hardware as SEC Player of the Year and now hopes to parlay that into a first-round selection by an NBA team that wants to develop his considerable skills for a couple of years.
Portis' leap from first-year phenom was considerable but, given all things, not utterly shocking. He came to Arkansas with a lean but buildable frame, an uncanny maturity and diverse offensive skills. He was tremendously productive as a freshman, and all signs pointed to the very noteworthy progress he ended up showing this past season. Portis and fellow early entry Michael Qualls did the yeoman work in leading Arkansas from NIT obscurity to a promising NCAA rebirth in a matter of months, so his exit for the lure of a guaranteed contract was probably a given even with so many draft-eligible talents taking the selfsame plunge.
For Arkansas center fielder Andrew Benintendi, the script was a little different. Though he arrived on campus in 2013 fresh from receiving ACBA/Rawlings National High School Player of the Year honors, the Cincinnati-area product with all the requisite tools packed into a fireplug frame didn't have that same degree of fanfare. His hometown Reds drafted him out of high school in the 31st round, clearly more of a wing-and-a-prayer bid to secure his services than anything else. He forged onward to Fayetteville, of course.
By the time his true freshman season ended, the primary numbers were utterly uninspiring. He batted .276 with a single home run, and plated 27 runs, not a bad figure given the dead bats he was swinging and his placement in the lineup. But there were other, less noticeable indicators of what was coming to fruition: Benintendi was durable, playing in 61 games, and smart at the plate (24 walks to only 20 strikeouts) and on the paths (17 steals in 21 tries). In other words, there was ample evidence that his poise would make him more productive in 2015.
Substantially so, it turns out.
Benintendi was granted the SEC Player of the Year honor this week, another no-brainer accolade given to the best player on one of the better teams in the league. As Arkansas sloughed away a sub-.500 early season start and coasted into the fifth slot of the 12-team league tournament, it had all manner of contributors along the way. Bobby Wernes made massive strides as a hitter and was bar none the best defensive third baseman in the conference. Rick Nomura showed some late-season pop and stabilized the middle infield. Clark Eagan and Joe Serrano got clutch hits constantly, and Tyler Spoon was back at run-producing level he flaunted early in his freshman campaign.
But from the word go, this lineup was fueled and for many stretches flat-out carried by Benintendi's charged bat. With 17 homers and a .415 average, he took two of the three Triple Crown categories comfortably, and his 51 RBIs were just five short of the league's high-water mark. His 21 steals made him the first 15 homer/20 stolen base player in program history, and he made only a single error in the outfield. It was as complete a season as a Hog hitter has had in the Dave Van Horn era, and arguably one of the finest overall seasons a player can have in a conference laden with supreme arms.
He's also the impetus behind the Hogs' unthinkable resurgence, which has made a regional hosting bid a decent probability after postseason seemed like an utter longshot weeks ago. Arkansas won seven of eight series, and didn't lose the other — splitting with Tennessee and giving up the rubber match to the weather gods — so there's likely not a hotter team or hotter player around as this critical stretch awaits.
And yet here I am, dousing the fires at the tail end: Benintendi's unthinkable transformation to a true five-tool guy has stirred up the MLB Draft buzz and the scouts love his deft combo of plate discipline, speed, instincts and smarts. He'll be a first-rounder after his true sophomore year, only draft-eligible by way of reaching the age of 21 this summer. So he's assuredly headed off to the world of bus trips and wooden bats soon; but if that's the case, like Portis, he leaves a quick but indelible legacy.