Although many people have known this for some time, the topic was re-energized last week when Jeff Long went on the radio and suggested Arkansas’ lack of a facility may be directly to blame for a recruit spurning the Razorbacks in favor of another program.
In the last month, Arkansas native Jamal Jones chose Texas A&M over Arkansas, and Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears chose Auburn. Both players made their decisions within days after official visits to Arkansas. That’s a bad look.
Last fall, the Arkansas Board of Trustees did approve the facility, but there has been no timeline announced for its construction, which is contingent on reaching fundraising goals to help afford the estimated $20-25 million needed to build it.
While comments from Long and Mike Anderson make it clear they understand the need for this facility, they haven’t yet made the effort to communicate that as effectively as the administration did for the football facility that is nearing completion. Back in 2010, UA sent a DVD to donors of this “Answer The Call” video which emphasized the need for improved facilities across the athletic program, but mostly football.
Former coach John Pelphrey and Scotty Thurman make brief cameos in the video (they’re on the screen about as long as everyone’s favorite former student athlete development coordinator, who makes a brief “Answer the call” plea at the 12:44 mark. No, really, that’s her! Speaking!) and a practice facility is never specifically mentioned.
It’s time to mention it with more frequency and urgency. The casual fan could be forgiven for hearing about a practice facility and thinking, “Why shouldn’t they just practice where they play?”
The first thing UA should do is make public a list of all the scheduling conflicts in a given month. Point out that any time the team couldn’t practice because the arena has to be closed at night or the women were practicing or if there is a special event such as graduation or a concert, that’s time every other SEC basketball team is practicing and getting better. Certainly, practicing outside of Bud Walton Arena at the same gym all students use is suboptimal, as the players are vulnerable to all the distractions of being high-profile student athletes.
But even if you believe that a devoted practice court alone isn’t going to make the current players that much better, if you believe the difference between Hunter Mickelson: All-American and Hunter Mickelson: Awkward Transfer isn’t that the team couldn’t practice in Bud Walton during the Walmart Shareholders Meeting in June (okay, bad example), the biggest benefit in having the building is recruiting.
I don’t know that many players select schools purely because one practice facility is bigger or better than others. I’d think when most schools all have similarly nice facilities it becomes a wash. But I do think players will eliminate schools for poor or nonexistent facilities.
While we strongly endorse promoting the history and tradition of the Arkansas Razorback basketball program, the school can build 100 statues of Nolan Richardson and put his name on all four corners of the court, players want to know a school is at least as invested in the future of a program as it is the past.
It’s also important to understand that it’s not just basketball-mad schools like Kentucky, Missouri, or Vanderbilt building these facilities for their players. It’s everybody. LSU has built a near-palace adjacent to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Look at the facility Texas A&M offered Jamal Jones. Or even Georgia, or South Carolina, or Auburn. And those aren’t “in construction”. They’re already built.
Making fun of Ole Miss’ near-universally loathed Tad Pad is an SEC tradition, but the Rebels recruit decently because their players spend far more time here than they do playing in the damp darkness of their game arena.
And this part is extremely important: it’s not just the practice courts that attract players. These facilities are stocked with lush player lounges, spacious locker rooms, larger, better equipped weight rooms and training rooms. So even if players don’t necessarily want to shoot around or scrimmage, they still have comfortable places to go to develop stronger chemistry and comradery among themselves.
Absolutely, Arkansas fans care more about basketball than the fans of those schools. Arkansas basketball has more history and tradition than most of the SEC. But those schools have those buildings completely devoted to those players and Arkansas does not. Every school in the SEC has a basketball arena, but every school in the SEC but one has a basketball arena and a practice facility.
It should be noted, as Jim Harris did last week, Arkansas basketball isn’t going to return to prominence just by building a practice facility. What it will do is eliminate recruits turning down Arkansas because they don’t have one. If every school in the conference has one, players won’t just flock to Arkansas because the Razorbacks have a facility that will likely be similar to everybody else’s. But it will put Mike Anderson on an equal recruiting ground with other schools.
Anderson is fortunate to be coaching Arkansas at a time when the state is in the midst of producing a very talented crop of players, and he deserves credit for earning the commitment of North Little Rock’s Anton Beard a few weeks ago. But for Anderson to take the program where he and the fans want him to take it, he’ll need to bring in top players from out of state with no previous connections to the Razorback program to complement those players. And it’s pretty difficult to attract those players to a school that hasn’t been winning and with nothing but a 20-year old arena when every competitor has newer, better, more convenient facilities.
Even when Anderson was at Missouri, a school with a practice facility, recruiting was never considered his strong suit. Blaming recruiting failures or missing the postseason purely on the lack of a practice facility would be disingenuous. But does it make recruiting or developing players more difficult? It’s hard to argue otherwise.
When Bud Walton Arena is full, it’s one of the best places in America to watch a college basketball game. It was state of the art when it was built but we can’t just pretend the program doesn’t require further investments. Even in the NBA, more than 2/3 of arenas are younger than Bud Walton Arena. What was new and amazing in 1994 just isn’t anymore. Back then, Arkansas could count on recruiting the Memphis area with better regularity. Since then, the Tigers moved into an NBA arena and, you’ll never guess, built their own state of the art on-campus facility for practice. Those facilities helped John Calipari make it easier for local players to stay home and eventually that allowed him to attract players like Derrick Rose.
Clearly, the Arkansas program has not kept pace since Bud Walton was built. Even if Arkansas gets the benefit of another #1 national high school player like Corliss Williamson coming through the state, the Razorbacks will struggle to put a championship team around him without the facilities to attract great players. As we’ve seen this year, Bobby Portis is the first McDonald’s All American to sign with the Razorbacks in several years, but Arkansas still failed to sign anybody to strengthen their backcourt next season. The facility won’t solve all those problems, it’s not some magical key to elite status, but it would make it easier and eliminate certain problems.