There is no doubt the loss of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to professional basketball impacted the immediate future of the Razorback basketball program.
Had the two elected to return for another season with Mike Anderson’s Arkansas squad, the Razorbacks would have entered the season ranked in the Top 20 and possibly the Top 10, and anything but a spot in the Sweet 16 would be perceived as underachievement.
Without Portis, the No. 22 pick by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Draft, and Qualls, a free-agent signee with the Oklahoma City Thunder, expectations for the Hogs have drastically changed. The Razorbacks won’t be ranked going into the season and a trip to the NIT would be a much safer bet than risking a wager on the Hogs returning to the NCAA Tournament.
That’s the conventional wisdom at least, and it may be dead solid perfect, but then again, conventional wisdom can be wrong. Anderson certainly thinks so. Going into his fifth season, the Razorbacks’ head coach believes his program has matured enough to weather not just the loss of Portis and Qualls but also starters Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris. From his statements this spring and summer, Anderson isn’t just hoping for a return to the Big Dance, he is expecting it.
Of course Anderson must believe that. As coach he must have those expectations. But are they unrealistic given the Razorbacks’ circumstances? Can Anderson and his staff develop the newcomers, the backups from last year and returning starter Anton Beard into an NCAA Tournament team.
Personally, I think it can happen, and the key word is development, player development. The poster children for player development in the Razorback program just happen to be Portis and particularly Qualls.
Let’s start with Portis. He is a talent. Everyone expected him to become a great player for the Razorbacks when he singed with the Hogs out of Little Rock Hall, and he showed flashes of that the minute he stepped on the floor as a freshman. However, the leap he made from his freshman to sophomore season wasn’t ordinary, far from it. He went from being a talented kid who played well but ultimately got pushed around in the paint to being the SEC’s Most Valuable Player, something not accomplished by a Razorback since Corliss Willamson won the honor two decades ago. Portis became a beast inside and a threat from the 3-point line in that opponents struggled to contain.
Portis’ production leaped to 17.5 ppg., 8.9 rpg. and 53.6 percent shooting from the field as a sophomore from 12.3 ppg., 6.8 rpg. and 50.9 percent shooting from the field as a freshman. His free-throw shooting percentage was 73.7 percent both seasons. Even for a player as talented as Portis obviously was, those are huge jumps.
Speaking of huge jumps, Qualls’ development over the past three years was even more incredible. The Shreveport, La., native went from being an athletic project as a freshman to being an athletic basketball player by the end of his junior season. He was the Hogs best player in postseason play.
The fact that Oklahoma City signed him as a free agent despite such a serious injury is proof of the progress he made. I don’t think there is a doubt he would have been drafted if he had not torn his ACL. That’s an astronomical leap in just three years.
Now there is no doubt Portis and Qualls are the key figures in their development as basketball players. They put in the work. But to believe Anderson and his basketball staff sat back and just watched it happen is blindness.
Portis had talent and skill when he arrived. What he needed with strength and stamina and a bit more confidence. Anderson and his staff put together a plan for Portis that allowed him to develop into a great player.
Qualls had a bundle of athletic ability, but his basketball skills and I.Q. were suspect. Likewise, Anderson and his staff formulated a different plan for Qualls that helped him maximize his abilities. He exited Anderson’s program a much more skilled and intelligent basketball player than when he entered. Two players, two different plans, both unqualified successes.
The great thing about Qualls and Portis’ success as Razorbacks is that it can spill over to other players even though they are gone. Their Razorback teammates witnessed their development and know if they follow the plan set out by their coaches, they too can maximize their abilities.
Granted there isn’t another Portis or Qualls on Anderson’s bench. That’s the cycle of college basketball. However, there is talent, and Anderson and his staff are working just as hard to develop it as they did with Qualls and Portis. The players have to be willing and have the drive, but now the tone has been set within the Hogs’ program.
Will the Hogs make the NCAA Tournament this season? They will if as individuals and as a team follow Anderson’s plan.