FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Michael Qualls feels much more comfortable on the court 13 games into his freshman season.
Classmates Jacorey Williams, Anthlon Bell and Dee Wagner feel the same.
The freshmen, who have been brought along slowly at times by Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, believe it was evident during their extended minutes against Delaware State last Saturday. And they’re confident Anderson noticed as the Razorbacks prepare to open Southeastern Conference play this week.
“I think coach has a better feel of what we can do,” Qualls said Monday. “Hopefully we can get out there if we can and show him what we learned.”
Arkansas will lean on veterans like B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell to lead the Razorbacks (9-4) through the 18-game conference schedule, which begins with Wednesday’s game at Texas A&M (10-3). But Anderson has said several times Arkansas’ strength must be its bench, so it’s no secret the four freshmen will have an important say in how much success the Razorbacks enjoy the next nine weeks.
The potential was on display in the Delaware State win last week. Arkansas turned to its bench after building an early lead, then watched it balloon behind the reserves and the freshmen played a key role in the success.
Williams provided effort and energy on both ends of the floor. Qualls made athletic plays around the basket. Bell knocked down a career-high four three-pointers.
“It helped a lot,” Bell said. “Especially last game going into conference play. It gave me the confidence to go out there and know I can make shots and help my team.”
In all, the freshmen accounted for 28 of Arkansas’ 41 points off the bench. Anderson said it was a good way to end nonconference play, while guard Mardracus Wade believes it was clear the freshmen are showing they can help when it counts.
“I think they’re a little more patient, they know the system better,” Wade said. “They still need to work on some better spacing on offense, but as far as their energy, coming off the bench and helping us, they’re great at that. They come in and give us a ton of energy. They come in deflecting balls, stealing balls, getting rebounds, blocking shots. Those are the kind of things we need.”
It wasn’t as promising earlier this season. In fact, there were times when Anderson elected to use the freshmen sparingly during the teeth of the nonconference slate.
The most notable game came in the 80-67 loss at Michigan. While Kikko Haydar and Rickey Scott made big contributions off the bench, the freshmen played a combined 10 minutes and were largely relegated to soaking in the atmosphere on the road.
But Williams said he and his classmates understood Anderson’s reasoning.
“That was kind of like our, really, first big road test,” Williams said. “So for a freshman to be in that type of environment, it’s kind of hard to play in that type of environment. By me understanding that and the other freshmen understanding that, it makes it better on ourselves.”
Williams has made the biggest jump since, averaging 6 points and 2.8 rebounds in five games. Qualls is averaging 5.2 points and 3.8 rebounds and Bell is averaging 4.4 points, getting most of them during a 12-point performance against Delaware State. Wagner is averaging 2.4 points and 1.4 assists during the stretch.
Anderson said he’s starting to trust the group much more now, thanks to a five-game win streak. Young, Powell, Mardracus Wade and Hunter Mickelson have continued to lead the way, but freshmen contributions are also clear.
“I think that with the games that we have had, we have had a chance to get those guys some more valuable time out there,” Anderson said.
Bell said the veterans have cautioned the freshmen about the intensity in conference games and said they’ll have to be ready for the next step. They’ve told them about the physical nature of the games. They’ve mentioned the two-month grind.
The Memphis native said he’s prepared and armed with more confidence after playing well in the nonconference finale. Williams, Qualls and Wagner feel the same.
“I think these guys are ready,” Young said about the freshmen “They came here to play, and I think that’s what they’re ready to do.”