BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Now that a preseason camp that included 10 summer workouts, a three-game tour of Croatia and Greece and two dozen fall practices is over, the Arkansas women’s basketball squad can finally turn its attention to the 2023-24 regular season.
That was the word from Razorback head coach Mike Neighbors Thursday at his team’s media day, held just a few days ahead of Tuesday night’s season opener at home against the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
The roster is down one to 12 players and it has two big characteristics per Neighbors, who is in his seventh season at Arkansas.
“The versatility and the depth,” Neighbors said. “The fact that in practice, for the first time in seven years – and it (depth) is always the last thing you have – is now here. When we came here, we had five kids in locker room and so depth wasn’t really an issue.
“It has taken us a while to get there, but now we have it.”
Neighbors notes that was evident in secret scrimmages that Arkansas hosted with TCU and Tulsa.
“I like the fact that we can really isolate match ups,” Neighbors said. “…We have talked about the press some and we are able to press full court. We are able to play as fast as we have played since we have been here.
“We have had two closed door scrimmages to practice those things and three exhibition games on our overseas trip and we have really seen a lot of cool line ups.”
The secret scrimmages were of great benefit per Neighbors.
“They call them super secret because you can’t talk about them ahead of time,” Neighbors said. “I prefer super secret scrimmages, since we had the exhibition games overseas this year, because what you do is call that coach and say ‘we need to work on X, Y and Z. Would you do this for us?’
“They say ‘yeah and in return what do you need from us?’ So we are able to get usable film of doing what we needed them to do.
“When we played TCU, he wanted us to press. When we played Tulsa, they didn’t really want us to press so we didn’t press, but we did other things.
“I learned that it is not just hope that we have depth. I have learned that we can cause people a lot of problems offensively. We scored 37 points in one quarter and only gave up 24 with that team.
“We would like to be better defensively, but our offense can be explosive at times. But there wer other times that we can put a defensive line up out there and we were able to stop them.
“The depth is real I would tell first and foremost that we have more makers than we had last year and in the last couple of years. Not shooters. We have about the same number of shooters, but more makers.
“All the drills that we have tracked over the years, our total number of makes is astronomically higher.
“In the last scrimmage we had against Tulsa, in the first quarter we had seven different players make a three and went 8 for 10.”
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Arkansas will begin the season minus a player after junior Jersey Wolfenbarger, a former Fort Smith Northside star and Parade All-American made the decision to leave the team earlier this week.
“When Jersey announced that she would be leaving the team, we spent the weekend with a lot of negativism because of a lack of information,” Neighbors said.
“Last Friday Jersey came in and after a brief conversation, she mentioned the words transfer portal and whenever that happens we are trained as coaches to send them immediately to compliance so that is what I did. I think a lot of the confusion is because of the lack of understanding of the rule.
“We have one of the best compliance offices in the country and we follow it daily, but the portal thing is new and it changes. So I think some of the confusion came when Jersey put out a release or people started getting that she had entered the transfer portal.
“There is no transfer portal window to enter right now. The transfer portal doesn’t open until March. You can put your your name in there and make it available. But if you choose to use the time right now between now and March – you can go to another school and you can go to another campus, but if you do that, you would not be eligible. And that’s anybody going in, not just Jersey.
“Anybody going in there now would forfeit a half year of eligibility because you wouldn’t be eligible until Christmas (2024)…Once all the options got out there, it was obviously best for her to wait.”
Neighbors takes the blame for it not working out for Wolfenbarger.
“That’s all I really have to say about it other than this is my failure,” Neighbors said. “When I recruited Jersey, we did it on a 10-year plan and I think that is what made us different than anybody else that was recruiting her.
“We had a 10-year plan. She wanted to be a WNBA player. I knew through experience of having a few WNBA players that it is one of the hardest jobs in America to have.
“There are only 144 jobs on a good year and some years that number is 133 because not everybody carries 12 people on their roster.
“We set out on a plan to help her get to that point. It was my plan and I was trying to execute it the best I could. We were two years into it and I was trying to help get her to where when she got to the WNBA that she would be able to do the things she wanted to do. And quite frankly, I just failed in that.
“It is not a reflection on my staff, not a reflection on our development system, it is just as case that not all of it worked out. It’s on me, definitely not on our staff, not on the system.
“You can’t blame the system because we have had a of success in other areas and in other people. It’s just we are not going to get them all right.
“So we had a very amicable talk. It’s hard on me because y’all know I am a relationship person and I get very close to our players and it hurts an opportunity to see a player reach the end of their journey.
“But she will be great in whatever she decides to do, but we are in full support of it.”
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Arkansas is on a mission to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season by what Neighbors has been told was one win.
That mission has led to some NASA-like terminology that was inspired by a talk Neighbors heard from Texas A&M men’s basketball head coach Buzz Williams.
“I saw him do a talk about how if you start off from (NASA’s) Cape Canaveral in Florida and get one degree off of you mission to the moon…you will miss the moon by 167 miles or something. He was way more specific than I was. He had it down to the foot.
“The thought was if you start on the wrong path and you stay on that wrong path, you end up missing it. We used that as our first talk in the preseason and we made it our own with talks about ways to stay on the right path.”
Photo by John D. James