Jim Harris: Like Everyone Else, Hunter Mickelson Saw Handwriting on Wall at Arkansas

Hunter Mickelson, and his family, exited the University of Arkansas with class. No finger-pointing, no blaming, just the acceptance that while the campus was a great place for the 6-foot-10 forward, the system of play for the Razorbacks wasn’t conducive to Mickelson’s basketball gifts.

He’ll find another place to restart his career and perhaps develop into the player that some prep recruiting gurus predicted was a certainty to move along quickly to the NBA.

Hunter Mickelson wasn’t able to show that level of ability in his two seasons with Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks.

Mickelson’s father was quoted Tuesday as noting that the sophomore’s playing time had decreased from his freshman season, though statistics show it was a miniscule drop at best — from 17.1 to 16.9 minutes a game.

In fact, a comparison of most of Mickelson’s statistics reflect little change upward or downward from his freshman to sophomore seasons. Playing time didn’t figure to rise too dramatically this recently completed season anyway with the return of power forward Marshawn Powell after a season on the pine with a knee injury, plus the addition of two more forwards. His scoring and rebounding numbers were almost identical in the two years.

The statistics showing the most drastic drop, though, are worth examining. Mickelson’s blocked shots fell from a team-high 72 as a freshman to 39 this season (altered shots also likely were down, though there was no statistical chart revealing as much.). Some of Mickelson’s drop-off in blocks was picked up by Powell and Coty Clarke, who combined for 55 rejections.

And Mickelson’s free-throw attempts were a meager 20, with 16 made — 80 percent. At least during his freshman season he had 31 trips to the line, with 16 makes. For a 6-10 player catching the ball in the paint and playing more than 15 minutes a game, less than a foul shot attempt per game isn’t good.

It indicates the ball went quickly back out to the perimeter, or not as much effort was made to score against a post defender. Mickelson developed a fall-away jump shot from the mid-range that was mostly unsuccessful during SEC play.

The “playing time” change came when Mickelson — who had starred in games against smaller teams such as Robert Morris and Alabama A&M — was dropped from the starting lineup early in SEC play in favor of 6-6 junior college transfer Clarke, whose game blossomed in league play.

Clarke scored, defended and battled. Meanwhile Hunter Mickelson was given every chance to succeed in the regular-season finale at home against Texas A&M, while both Powell and B.J. Young sat extended minutes for never-fully-explained reasons, but the big man was outplayed by his A&M counterpart and appeared to have already cashed out that afternoon.

Clarke will be back for his senior year, along with rising sophomore Michael Qualls, who also began to show major improvement during SEC games and can swing inside or out. Rising 6-foot-8 sophomore Jacorey Williams figures to have more confidence t0 make more of an impact next season as well.

Plus, there is 6-6 junior Alandise Harris, who sat out this season as a transfer from Houston and who gives the Hogs a physical inside-to-midrange player similar to Louisville’s Chane Behanan. Then there are the incoming freshman, particularly McDonald’s All-American Bobby Portis, a 6-10 string bean with an inside-outside game, along with 6-9 shotblocker-defender Moses Kingsley, an AAU teammate of Portis’.

Surely if every message board fan was seeing it and saying it, Mickelson and his family weren’t oblivious to the fact that playing time could be even more scarce next season. He has a chance to find the right program where he could play 25-30 minutes per game as a “stretch” forward.

Anderson and his staff put significant weight on Mickelson since his arrival to better equip him for the inside battles in major D-I basketball. From his AAU days and from playing at small Jonesboro Westside High School, Mickelson always seemed to prefer a perimeter or more-finesse approach. He was never could adapt to a back-to-the-basket position, though chances are he would have had to do less of that with the recruits coming in.

If the most recent NCAA Tournament has taught the current Razorbacks, as well as the program’s fans, anything it’s that a physical approach is paramount to advancing, and not just being physical around the glass. There’s nowhere for softness or lack of aggressi0n on the court, at least not among teams that made the second weekend of the tournament.

This really shouldn’t be new to Arkansas and its fans. The best team Arkansas ever suited up, the 1994 national championship squad, could shoot it as well as anyone but was also as physical as any foe. Pull out the tape of the Hogs’ Elite Eight win over Juwan Howard and Michigan for a reminder of how tough the Razorbacks could play — and that includes the often maligned former UA post player Darnell Robinson. The California native loved to take shots from the perimeter away from big bodies inside, but he had championship moments banging around the glass during that magical season.

Of course, team leaders Corey Beck and Corliss Williamson wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Arkansas should be able to replace Mickelson’s output in the stats, and Mickelson has an opportunity to turn his own game around elsewhere. What Mike Anderson could really use is a Beck or Williamson on his team that demands the toughness required of a champion.

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