Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Neighbors' Razorbacks ready to race
Arkansas women's basketball coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE If he’s trying, it is difficult for Mike Neighbors to mask the enthusiasm he has for his fourth basketball team at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks check a lot of boxes. They’re more experienced, better inside and in better shape than a year ago when they won 24 games in a season cut short by the covid-19 pandemic.
But the overriding theme in the preseason is the team’s speed. Neighbors’ “Race and Space” offensive system has always been run at break-neck speed, but this has the potential to be the fastest team he has ever coached.
“Nobody wants to run up and down the floor as fast as we do,” said Destiny Slocum, a graduate-senior guard who transferred from Oregon State.
Slocum joins an already loaded Arkansas roster that includes the team’s two double-digit scorers from last season in guards Chelsea Dungee (16.9 points per game) and Amber Ramirez (14.7). The Razorbacks also return three-year starting guard Jailyn Mason, who missed last season with a torn tendon in her ankle and is a strong defender in transition; sophomore guard Makayla Daniels who averaged 9.3 points as a freshman; and senior forward Taylah Thomas, who led the team with 6.5 rebounds per game last season.
Then there is a freshman class that includes blue-chip guards Elauna Eaton of Nettleton and Rylee Langerman of Del City, Okla., and forward Destinee McGhee of Huntsville, Ala. Neighbors said Eaton’s status for the season is uncertain due to an undisclosed preseason injury, but said McGhee adds an inside presence on offense.
“She impacts our game,” Neighbors said. “She’s as good a passer — she’s not a (former Washington All-American and current Arkansas assistant coach) Chantel Osahor, but she’s very close. Her ability to play off the ball screen and off the give and gos — we have upperclassmen ducking when she gets the ball on the block. They’re just bailing out of there.”
McGhee (6-2), Thomas (6-1) and sophomore Destinee Oberg (6-3) give the Razorbacks a collection of size and talent around the basket they have lacked in recent years. That should help on defense, too, where Arkansas struggled against big teams last season.
“I think we’ll see some continued improvement in that area,” Neighbors said.
The Razorbacks were one of the nation’s best perimeter teams a year ago when they made 314 3-pointers in 808 attempts.
Ramirez was the team’s top 3-point shooter with 106 makes on 44.7% of her attempts. Dungee made 53 3-pointers.
The team must replace the production of All-SEC guard Alexis Tolefree, who averaged 16.3 points and made 91 threes.
In some ways Slocum is expected to fill that void, although she’ll play a different role within the offense. Slocum is a driver and distributor who averaged 15.2 points and 4.6 assists per game at Oregon State.
She is also strong, which leads to good rebounding. During one offseason weight-lifting session, Slocum bench pressed 150 pounds 27 times.
“I think it makes us incredibly hard to prepare for,” Neighbors said of his roster. “I don’t think you can focus on any one player.
“If you don’t put your fastest kid on (Daniels), she’s going to shoot a bunch of layups. So who guards Slocum now? Your second-fastest kid? OK, well that means now Dungee or Ramirez are now going to get your third- or fourth-best perimeter ball defender. That’s a hard matchup.”
The team has been efficient in preseason practices with low turnover numbers and high shooting percentages. When Neighbors spoke to media members a couple of weeks into pracitce he said one player was shooting 49.6% during scrimmages, and it was only the ninth-best percentage on the team.
“I think we’re 10-15 points better offensively per game than we were last year,” Neighbors said of a team that averaged 83.4 points in the 2019-20 season.
Like in college football this year, Neighbors said he expects to see offenses well ahead of defenses in the upcoming basketball season. During a single 10-minute quarter of a preseason scrimmage Arkansas had one team score 31 points, but allow 39.
“Defense is definitely going to be behind because defense takes time,” Neighbors said. “Defense is a lot of science, and science takes time. Offense is art, and art you can put it together. That team had a great quarter. They scored 31 but got their butts beat by eight points in 10 minutes.”
Neighbors wants his team to play good defense, but makes no excuses for assembling an offensive-minded team.
“A good offense can beat a good defense in basketball,” Neighbors said.
“It gives you a chance. I don’t think you can get into a defensive struggle with South Carolina and be able to win the game. You have to be able to score at the highest level to beat the best teams on your schedule.
“Even Baylor, South Carolina, UConn — anybody that’s going to be in the top five — if we catch them on their ‘B night,’ we’ve got a puncher’s chance. That’s why we choose to play that way. I don’t think we could beat those guys with a walk-it-up, pound-it style, or a possession-type game, win with defense. This is the way we’ve got to do it and with this particular team, it’s happening. It’s just a lot of fun right now.”
Dungee and Mason have made gains physically, they said. Dungee said she has lost 20 pounds and hopes to lose 10 more by the start of the season, while Mason said she has lost weight she gained while immobilized during her rehab period.
Dungee said she feels more like she did as a sophomore, when she lost 35 pounds prior to the season and scored 20 or more points in 20 games. She said the weight loss has helped her first step to the basket.
“I can definitely feel the difference in how my game is, based off that 25 pounds,” Dungee said.
“I definitely see her being back to where she was our first year of playing together,” Mason said of Dungee. “Her foot speed is quicker, her defense is quicker. It just adds that extra layer that she has needed for her game and it makes us 10 times better when she’s able to move at that speed.”
Neighbors singled out a moment involving Dungee early in the preseason as an indication of the maturity on his team. Dungee, a fifth-year senior, stopped a practice to call a foul on herself against a freshman.
“It was a crucial play for her team on defense and she said, ‘Coach, I fouled her,’” Neighbors said. “We had to stop the practice and say, ‘What just happened?’ She just answered it perfectly, ‘Coach, I’m a senior, turning over a new leaf,’ and was just smiling.
“She understands the difference, that you can be competitive without being an asshole. That type of growth (is what we see), just little things like that.”
Neighbors made an addition to his coaching staff this summer when Kelsey Plum came on board as a graduate assistant. Plum played for Neighbors and alongside Osahor at Washington, where Plum set the NCAA’s career scoring record. She was the No. 1 overall pick of the Las Vegas Aces in the 2017 WNBA Draft, but is rehabbing a torn Achilles.
“She’ll say the exact same thing I’ve been saying to a player for two years, but they’ll listen to her,” Neighbors said. “She’s got so much more ability to explain to them in their terms what’s important….She’s been talking about treating your body like a pro and what that means and looks like.
“Her perspective is unique and in a very short amount of time has made an impact.”
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