The Jim Thorpe Classic gave us some good roundball — better than expected. Scheduling has been perfect in the first half of this year, with lots of quality competition, one tough loss to get it out of our system, something of a rivalry game against Pel's old team South Alabama, and finally two complete, veteran teams visiting the Hill for a post-finals week of fundamentals. This young team couldn't have asked for a more constructive and instructive start to their season.
Coach Pelphrey isn't done yet. After the break, the Razorbacks get one joint-loosening warm-up against North Texas before welcoming two of the best teams in the country to Bud Walton Arena. The Oklahoma Sooners are ranked fourth in the country for good reason and have serious title hopes. No. 5 Texas might be a little more one-dimensional (if A.J. Abrams takes a game off on the wrong night, they're cooked), but the scrappy Longhorns should be around through the Sweet Sixteen. The Hogs get a short breather between, and both games are at home, but what we're gonna see in early January is the equivalent of that dismal stretch of Arkansas football this year between Alabama and Florida.
Don't let it get you down. These Razorbacks are destined to go deep into the tournament at some point in their careers. Pel has assembled his own crew in the backcourt, and only holdover Stefan Welsh sticks out like a sore thumb at this point. His off-the-rails style of play has to evolve or he'll be riding the bench during conference games. (Courtney Fortson's young enough and tough enough to go 35 minutes.)
Up front, Michael Washington eats double-doubles for breakfast. Like a less blank-eyed Tim Duncan, he's got a calmness and firmness about him that steadies the ship. And his defense: Watch people start towards the basket, look Washington in the eye, and back right up. Michael Sanchez has the potential in the coming years to be another Charles Thomas, albeit less skilled. No one can replace the Manimal, one of the most beloved Razorbacks of the last decade, but with physical play up front and that full head of shaggy hair, I wouldn't be surprised if Sanchez eventually became the Mane-imal.
Back to that frontcourt! If Rotnei Clarke can learn to break free of double teams, he's as sure a thing as we've seen since Pat Bradley — only smoother and more athletic. Marcus Britt is our most solid defender, with long arms and quick feet that can shut down shooting guards and force things inside.
But of all the young Hogs, the force is strongest with Courtney Fortson — and I mean that in the most gymnastic, Jaba-juking, Death Star exploding, eyes-closed badass sense. His no-look sleight-of-hand might be a bit much for the rest of the team on occasion, but when not he's all jaw-dropping greatness. He scored the first six at Stephen F. Austin last Saturday — never once stopped moving — and versus a team that had allowed zero turnovers the night before against a tough veteran defense, he helped incite four giveaways before the first commercial break.
All I want for Christmas is a reason to believe, and Coach Pel has let me open presents early. It'll be an iffy regular season for the young'uns, but with the SEC down this year, we're sure to go dancing. These kids have got some moves.