Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Previewing Non-Conference: Arkansas

One of the more interesting non-conference opponents on Michigan's schedule this season is Arkansas.  Not only because it should be a decent opponent from a big conference, but also because Arkansas was able to beat Michigan in their lone meeting last season 66-64.  The game was incredibly disappointing for Michigan players and fans alike and the team will surely be seeking redemption in this year's meeting.

This will be the second year under coach Mike Anderson and the prospects are certainly much better than those in the first season.  Their overall record didn't improve (actually losing 2 more games than under previous coach John Pelphrey and having a weaker conference record), but just take a look at the roster, which now has 16 players.  A year ago, Arkansas was forced to use converted football players in order to fill its roster.  For a big school like Arkansas, that's something that's almost unthinkable.  Having these capable bodies will undoubtedly help the team as the season goes on and particularly deep conference play.

This can be seen in the way Arkansas weakened as the year went on.  Of course, part of this was due to the increased difficulty of opponents, but at one point in the season, the team was 16-6 and 4-3 in SEC play.  This could be discounted if the Razorbacks hadn't faced some quality competition, but this included wins over Michigan, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt, all teams that were pretty solid last year.  Then during, their remaining 10 games, Arkansas had a 2-8 record.  Even with the increased difficulty, that is a really poor way to finish the season.

However, Arkansas looks to be a lot stronger this year.  They did lose some players last year, but they are bringing in four talented freshmen and two transfer players in Coty Clarke and Fred Gulley.  One of the key components of these additions is size.  Last year, Arkansas was a very weak defensive team and had significant troubles rebounding the basketball.  This year, those troubles won't be completely gone, but this should certainly help matters.  Also a note, the NCAA hasn't solidified who will be eligible to play of the transfers at this point.

Along with this, Marshawn Powell has been cleared to play for the upcoming season.  This will be a big return that could really help boost the talent level of this team.  He only played in two games last season, but he averaged 19.5 points and 6.0 rebounds during that time.  Returning any player with those kind of stats even in a small sample size, is probably something that will help your team going forward.  Mike Anderson hasn't said he's completely back yet, but he should improve as the year progresses.

However, the key player will likely be B.J. Young, the talented Arkansas guard.  He averaged 15.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists last season and actually considered jumping for the NBA Draft following last year.  He is very likely the most talented player on the roster and how he progresses over this season will be a big sign of where this team can end up come March.  People have criticized his consistency, but with a tough offseason training regime, he should be ready to go this year.

I think this Arkansas team could surprise a lot of people.  Yes, they are not the most talented team in the country or even their conference.  However, their roster is significantly better than last year's roster and they seem to be heading in the right direction.  Their schedule is much tougher, but they have some big opportunities to secure quality wins and are playing in a weaker SEC conference than last season.  It's going to be no cakewalk, but the pieces are in place for an NCAA Tournament run.

Do I think Arkansas will make the NCAA Tournament?  If they do, they will definitely be on the bubble, but a lot of it will be determined in the non-conference season against teams like Michigan.  If they can notch a big win over a team or two, they have a great shot.  If I had to bet right now, I would say they just miss the NCAA Tournament, but they should at least get a big NIT bid.  Either way, this could definitely turn into one of the tougher non-conference games for the Wolverines this year, even if the game is in Ann Arbor.

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