April 19, 2007

Razorbacks excited to play under Pelphrey

Arkansas didn't land its first choice in its recent search for a basketball coach.

In fact, new coach John Pelphrey may not have been in Athletic Director Frank Broyles' original top five.

However, the Razorbacks might have ended up with the most ideal candidate in the end.

Pelphrey who spent the last four seasons as the coach at South Alabama knows all about dealing with a coaching switch, and is well-equipped at facing unexpected adversity. While entering his sophomore season at Kentucky in 1989, the school was rocked by a recruiting scandal. Coach Eddie Sutton was forced to resign and the team was put on probation.

Those violations ended up cutting Pelphrey's best season short. The Wildcats were ranked No. 9 in the nation at the end of the 1990-91 regular season, but UK was barred from the SEC and NCAA tournaments (Pelphrey was averaging a career-best 14.4 ppg at the time).

The following year, with the postseason ban gone, Pelphrey helped lead the Wildcats to the Elite Eight before they lost to defending national champion Duke in overtime in what has been called one of the greatest games of all time.

"One of the first things I told the players was that I've been through a coaching change," Pelphrey told Rivals.com. "I know what they are feeling and can relate to it. It's going to take time to adjust to each other."

The Arkansas players have been through an emotional period since coach Stan Heath was fired. Heath was dismissed despite leading the Hogs to back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Broyles looked at a number of high-profile names, including Memphis' John Calipari, Kansas' Bill Self and new Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.

The Arkansas AD ended up going to the mid-major ranks to find a replacement, initially hiring Creighton's Dana Altman. But, one day after accepting the job, Altman headed back to Creighton.

News would break soon thereafter that two players had recently tested positive for marijuana and a third was under academic suspension. Their names have yet to be released.

The Rick Pitino Coaching Tree
New Arkansas coach John Pelphrey is one of eight former assistants to and/or players for Rick Pitino who are a Division I head coaches. Here's a look at the Pitino coaching tree:
Name, School Record
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati 70-43
Billy Donovan, Florida 296-123
Travis Ford, UMass* 98-104**
John Pelphrey, Arkansas* 80-67
Herb Sendek, Arizona State 262-180
Tubby Smith, Minnesota 387-145
Reggie Theus, New Mexico St. 41-25
Ralph Willard, Holy Cross 159-89***
* Only played under Pitino
** At the D-I level
*** Since working under Pitino

The chance to play for Pelphrey has finally given the team something around which to rally.

"Coach Pelphrey was a lot more excited, more fiery," junior guard Stefan Welsh said. "Players respond to that. It's real special to know that we'll have almost our whole team back with a coach like that. I think it's going be a real good year for us."

Heath, who is taking over the reins at South Florida, would agree. Heath said he was expecting this to be his best team since arriving in Fayetteville in 2003.

The Razorbacks are expected to return seven seniors, five of whom have starting experience. That includes the SEC's leading returning shot blocker. Steven Hill. The big man swatted 2.8 shots per game last season. The Razorbacks also feature one of the league's top point guards. Gary Ervin averaged 4.8 assists last season.

But the more important news is that freshman guard Patrick Beverley will return. Beverley, one of the SEC's top young players, was considering a transfer until he met with Pelphrey. Beverley led the team in scoring (13.9 ppg) and steals (1.7 spg) last season.

"It's been real tough lately with the coaching changes and everything, but I really like what (Pelphrey) has to say, and I really like what he's got to offer," Beverley said.

What Pelphrey has to offer is the chance to score a lot more points. He plans to implement the same up-tempo style of play he learned under Rick Pitino. As an assistant coach, Pelphrey helped Billy Donovan utilize the style of play at Florida and then used it himself at South Alabama.

"We are going to constantly attack on offense and defense," Pelphrey said. "We are going to get out on fast breaks and get as many high-percentage shots as possible. We will press and extend the floor."

That's exactly what a team that ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring offense last season (71.1 points a game) wants to hear.

"(Pelphrey) is one of the type of coaches that this program needs," junior forward Charles Thomas said. "You know, a Nolan Richardson-type."

Richardson, who coached at Arkansas from 1985-2002, is famous for bringing the "40 minutes of hell" to Fayetteville. Richardson's teams played an up-tempo style that featured constant pressing and a barrage of 3-pointers.

He led the Hogs to their first NCAA title in 1994 and a return trip to the title game the following season.

If Pelphrey produces results anywhere close to that, the trials and tribulations of Arkansas' coaching search will be forgotten.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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