In a very general sense, coaching can be compared to grilling. If you want a better tasting meal, you have to start off with a better grade of meat.
A cook has many ways of enhancing or developing the flavor of meat with spices, sauces and marinades. Wrapping bacon around beef tenderloin to enhance the flavor of the lean cut allows a restaurant to sell it for almost twice as much.
Experienced grillers know the proper heat and time that works best with the cut they are grilling. They know whether they want to sear the meat quickly or smoke it slowly. They know how to use the meat’s natural juices in their favor.
However, no matter how much care is given to the meat in its preparation, even a master griller unable to take U.S. Select and make it taste like U.S. Prime.
Now, I know that analogy is too simple. Basketball players aren’t meat. Each one is far more complex. Meat can’t think or learn or improvise. It doesn’t have emotions, expectations or aspirations. Meat lacks the mental states of confidence and doubt. It can’t make choices. Five steaks on a grill can’t work together for a common goal.
Meat, however, is always consistent. Under the same conditions, it will perform consistently. It does not have a life outside of being meat that can positively or negatively affect its level of performance. It has no worries or concerns beyond being meat.
With all that being said, Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson knows better than anyone that he needs more talented and more skilled basketball players than he was able to deploy this season if he is to return the Razorback program back to respectability.
As frustrating as the Hogs one-and-done finish at the SEC Tournament and their overall 16-16 record was, it was even more so to the players, Anderson and his staff. Anderson and his staff have been addressing that need for more talent for more than a year with their recruiting efforts, and are continuing to do so.
The Razorbacks signed four players in November and have a commitment from a fifth to sign in April. Evidently, the Razorbacks are pursuing other recruits, hoping to add a total of six players from the two signing periods.
Three of the four players Arkansas signed in November are from the junior college ranks: 6-5 point guard Jaylen Barford of Motlow State Community College, 6-4 shooting guard Daryl Macon of Holmes Community College, and 6-9 power forward Arlando Cook of Conors State Community College. The other signee was 6-8 power forward Adrio Bailey of Lakeview High School in Campti, La. The Hogs also have a commitment from 6-5 small forward C.J. Jones of Central Park Christian in Birmingham, Ala.
The three junior college players are all ranked among the top 10 in the JUCO ranks. Many who report on recruiting consider Barford as the nation’s best JUCO player.
The original thought on why Anderson dipped so deeply into the junior college well was to provide an instant supporting cast for potential one-and-done performer Malik Monk of Bentonville.
With Monk opting to take his talents to Kentucky, the Razorbacks desperately need an injection of more mature talent to support returning starters Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley. Starters Jabril Durham, Anthlon Bell and Keaton Miles have completed their eligibility along with backup center Willy Kouassi.
Barford averaged 26.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists this season, while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range.
Macon, a native of Little Rock, averaged 23.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from the three-point line.
Cook averaged 11.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists, while shooting 57.2 percent from the field. Those that have seen him play in person feel that he and Kingsley will complement each other.
One could project that trio helping the Hogs return to NCAA play next season.
However, the questions that gnaw at me whenever Arkansas signs junior college players in any sport is whether they will ever make it to campus and how well and how quickly they will gel with the other players.
As recently as last year, prep school standout Ted Kapita stung the Hogs when he failed to meet admission standards.
Old timers like me also remember that issues primarily dealing with junior college recruits pulled the rug out from under Nolan Richardson’s program when Arkansas’ No. 1 rated recruiting class of 1995 unraveled.
The NCAA ruled junior college transfers Jesse Pate and Sunday Adebayo ineligible midway through the 1996 season, and problems with the recruitment of two other junior college players, who never made it to campus, prompted a long NCAA investigation of the program that hampered recruiting for three years.
Freshman recruits from 1995 Pat Bradley and Derek Hood went on to distinguished Razorback careers, playing along side Kareem Reid, a 1994 signee who had to sit out the 1995 season to become academically eligible, and Nick Davis, a junior college transfer that had a great senior season.
Bradley, Hood and Reid were the nucleus of teams that won a lot of games for the Hogs, but the chilling effect from the NCAA investigation hurt recruiting and kept the Razorbacks from being all they could have been during that period. That lag in recruiting became most apparent in 2000 and 2002.
The 2000 Razorbacks had to win the SEC Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Had the Hogs not won the SEC Tournament, many feel Frank Broyles, Arkansas’ athletics director at the time, would have fired Richardson.
In 2002, Broyles and Chancellor John White did fire Richardson with one game remaining in the regular season after Richardson made inflammatory statements in a media conference about his treatment within the program.
Certainly Richardson had issues with Arkansas’ athletic administration that went beyond the basketball court, but those issues were not new in 2002. He had lived with them for the bulk of his 17 seasons as Arkansas’ head basketball coach.
Personally, I believe the situation came to a head because of sleep deprivation and stress that Richardson put on himself during a losing season. Richardson hated losing, and in an attempt to turn the team around, he pushed himself too far. He said he wasn’t sleeping much that season, and he looked tired in press conferences.
I have no doubt that Richardson meant and believed every word he said, but under less stress, he might have handled the situation differently.
That’s just informed speculation, and in the grand scheme, it has little to do with the current state of Razorback basketball.
However, the near future of the Razorbacks basketball program is banking on this year’s recruiting class producing and in a big way. It’s an all-in move that needs to work out for Anderson and the Razorbacks program.
No doubt Anderson and his staff plans to develop the players on campus, too. Regardless of the newcomers, if Jimmy Whit, Anton Beard and Trey Thompson put in the work, they can see their play make a leap in a similar fashion to Durham and Kingsley’s this season.
Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs obviously know what it takes to improve their games, and as strongly as they performed this season, there are areas where they can improve.
Though I am leery of relying so heavily on junior college players in one recruiting class, sometimes, calculated risks must be made. Anderson needs better talent to pull the Razorbacks out of the middle of the SEC. From all accounts, this is his best recruiting class at Arkansas. It will be interesting and hopefully fun to see how it all works out.