Freshmen easing into flow for UA

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, December 15, 2012
NWA Media/ANDY SHUPE -- Arkansas freshman guard Anthlon Bell (5) against Longwood on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, during the first half of play in Bud Walton Arena.
Photo by Andy Shupe
NWA Media/ANDY SHUPE -- Arkansas freshman guard Anthlon Bell (5) against Longwood on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, during the first half of play in Bud Walton Arena.

— Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson isn’t worried about the Razorbacks suffering a letdown against Alcorn State tonight after they played a five-game stretch against major-conference teams, including No. 4 Syracuse and No. 3 Michigan.

“The reason why is because we have some guys sitting on that bench,” Anderson said. “You know they’re hungry to play.”

Arkansas’ first road game of the season was an 80-67 loss to Michigan last Saturday, and Anderson went with a short bench as eight Razorbacks — all juniors or sophomores — played between 34 and 17 minutes.

The Razorbacks’ four freshmen played a combined 10 minutes: Michael Qualls (6), Anthlon Bell (3), Jacorey Williams (1) and Dee Wagner (0). Anderson was hesitant to play freshmen in a rowdy environment in Crisler Arena, where a sellout crowd of 12,692 watched Michigan improve to 21-1 at home since the start of last season.

Williams, a 6-8 forward, said he understood Anderson’s concern.

“To adapt to that type of environment, you kind of need to have been there before,” Williams said. “It was pretty crazy at Michigan.

“You’re probably uncomfortable, probably nervous a little bit, but I think playing these games at home will give us more confidence for when we go back on the road.”

Arkansas (4-4) plays its next five games at home against teams from the Southwestern Athletic, Northeast, Southland and Mid-Eastern Athletic conferences before opening SEC play at Texas A&M on Jan. 9.

After playing Alcorn State at 7 tonight in Walton Arena, the Razorbacks play Robert Morris in Fayetteville, Alabama A&M at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, and Northwestern State and Delaware State in Fayetteville.

It’s a schedule built for the Razorbacks to get consistent, quality playing time for their freshmen, as well as junior guard Fred Gulley, who is eligible to make his Arkansas debut tonight after transferring from Oklahoma State a year ago.

“Playing any team is a big deal to us,” said Bell, a 6-3 guard. “It’s D-I college basketball. We’re ready to go out and play every game like it’s a big game.”

Ideally, the Razorbacks would have had these next five games interspersed throughout the stretch of Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Michigan, but they weren’t able to put together that schedule, in part because of national television obligations to CBS and ESPN that dictated they must play certain teams on specific dates.

“This is a stretch that a lot of teams go through in their nonconference schedule early on, where they can play a lot of people,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have that luxury. So now we get a chance to play those young guys and get them ready.

“These games coming up will certainly give them an opportunity to play more and get a little more seasoned. I think that’s going to be important, because if you look at our team right now, you get those guys going and you have a chance to rest those guys that are starting out and you see stronger finishes — stronger on the defensive part and getting those rebounds and getting those loose balls and continuing to be on the attack where we can get to the free throw line.”

The freshmen all had some good moments before the Michigan game:

m Wagner had 6 points and 3 assists without a turnover in 23 minutes against Syracuse.

m Williams had 6 points and 2 steals in 15 minutes against Wisconsin.

m Qualls had 8 points and 4 blocked shots in 23 minutes against Sam Houston State.

m Bell had 16 points in 17 minutes against Longwood.

Now they have a chance to have some sustained success over the next five games.

“We want to help the team defensively, bring energy off the bench and help the starters get some rest so they don’t have to play as many minutes,” Bell said. “Hopefully, it’s going to help us all get our confidence up going into league play.

“We want Coach to have more confidence in us to go out and play and perform.”

Williams said the freshmen are gaining a better feel for how they fit into the team and remain confident.

“We know it’s early in the season,” Williams said. “We’re not really panicking right now. We know the SEC is like a whole new season, so this is basically just preparing us for SEC play.”

Anderson said he wants a core group established for his playing rotation going into the SEC schedule, which has been expanded from 16 to 18 games this season.

“I‘m not opposed to playing nine or 10 guys,” Anderson said. “We need to have them ready to play because throughout the course of a season you never know what happens. Somebody may get hurt, and somebody has got to be ready to step in line.”

Sports, Pages 21 on 12/15/2012