Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 21 storyline focuses on Arkansas' new coach, John Pelphrey.
There will be 62 new coaches in Division I this season. Most are taking on rebuilding projects. Some are looking to make their new teams competitive in their conferences. Arkansas' John Pelphrey falls in the minority: those with big expectations immediately.
Arkansas' coach always faces heavy pressure, regardless of the circumstances. But this is different than when Pelphrey's predecessor, Stan Heath, took over the tradition-rich program five years ago. Heath didn't have much talent or experience on the roster. But Pelphrey is expected to get Arkansas into the NCAA Tournament and win once he's there (Heath never won an NCAA Tournament game with the Hogs).
That's largely because of what Pelphrey inherits: Every starter is back from a team that won 21 games and went to the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
"I've been joking with him all summer that I'm picking him first (in the SEC West)," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "I'm putting the pressure right on him. I think he'll handle it well."
Gottfried undoubtedly would like to have the services of Arkansas sophomore guard Patrick Beverley, one of the nation's most promising young players. Beverley was voted SEC Freshman of the Year after leading the team in scoring (13.9 points a game) and steals (1.7 spg) and finishing second in rebounding (4.5 rpg) and assists (3.1 apg). He was one of the top players at the U-19 World Championships in July, averaging a team-high 13.0 ppg and 3.4 spg while leading the Americans to a silver-medal finish.
The return of Gary Ervin gives Pelphrey a senior point guard with plenty of experience. Ervin ranked fifth in the SEC at 4.8 assists per game last season. Senior wing Sonny Weems ranked second on the team at 11.8 ppg after transferring from junior college.
Pelphrey also has a dominating shot blocker in 7-foot senior Steven Hill, the SEC's reigning defensive player of the year. Hill ranked second in the league at 2.8 blocks a game. He'll be surrounded by a deep and experienced group of forwards in classmates Charles Thomas (10.7 ppg) and Darian Townes (8.1 ppg).
"I don't think there's any question he's inherited a team that is very gifted," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whom Pelphrey assisted from 1996-2002. "Their frontcourt is probably among the best in the country."
Pelphrey hopes the Razorbacks are among the best in the nation at creating turnovers. Much like Rick Pitino, whom he played for at Kentucky, and Donovan, Pelphrey likes to use a lot of defensive pressure and encourages his players to fire up plenty of 3-pointers.
Pelphrey used that style of play to turn around a struggling South Alabama program. Coming off an 8-20 season when he arrived, the Sun Belt Conference school put together back-to-back 20-victory seasons the past two seasons.
"We'll run a man press with a man on the ball and we'll run a zone press," Pelphrey said. "That will be based on scouting. We'll have a 2-2-1 zone and a 2-1-2, depending on the team and the game."
Pelphrey also appears to be bringing a new form of discipline to Fayetteville. During the team's trip to Cancun over Labor Day weekend, he suspended three players (Beverley, sophomore guard Stefan Walsh and freshman guard Marcus Britt)
for one game because they were late for the team bus.
"I like the talent level," Pelphrey said. "I don't know if we have any guys that will have their names called in the top 13 picks of the draft, I don't know that, but I anticipate we have some guys who have a chance to play at the next level.
"I also know there have been a lot of teams with very high talent levels who didn't make it. Running, jumping, size and speed are all very important things to have, but I think the coaching, the character of an individual who can be selfless – to me, those are talents, too."
Pelphrey will have a distinct advantage over most first-year coaches. The Razorbacks went through 10 practices – the maximum number allowed by the NCAA for teams making international trips – before taking off for Cancun. With a new coach and a new system to be installed, that time could end up being particularly beneficial.