FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Mike Anderson can't say for sure how far he thinks Arkansas will go this season.
What the second-year Razorbacks coach can say is he has a team much more molded to his pressing, up-tempo style — one he hopes can break the school's streak of four straight missed NCAA tournaments.
Arkansas opens its regular season on Friday night against Sam Houston State, and all eyes in the state will be on Anderson's revamped and reloaded roster. It is one Anderson had a sneak peak at during a four-game European exhibition series during the summer, and one he expects to be more athletic and attacking.
"This team is going to be a work in progress," Anderson said. "They're going to take some steps forward, and every now and then take a step back. But I just like the work ethic, the mindset, at this point in time."
The Razorbacks feature seven new players this season after finishing a disappointing 18-14 last season. That team began the season quickly before losing nine of its final 12 games, the product of a series of injuries that left Arkansas with as few as eight scholarship players at times.
Depth shouldn't be a problem this season for the Razorbacks, though they will be without leading scorer BJ Young for Friday's opener. The talented sophomore guard was suspended two games for violating team rules earlier this week, missing Arkansas' final exhibition game as well as the opener.
Young's absence would have been a concern for last season's depleted roster but not this year.
Led by the return of forward Marshawn Powell and an athletic new-look backcourt, the Razorbacks won their two exhibition games by an average of 47 points. Powell, who missed all but the first two games last season because of a torn knee ligament, scored an average of 11.5 points in the games — providing another boost of optimism for a team that's already quietly confident.
The 6-foot-7 Powell averaged 19.5 points per game last season before the injury to his right knee. He played sparingly during the summer trip to Italy, during which Arkansas was 4-0 against teams from the host country and Lithuania, but has looked like his old self during practice the last month.
"This is what he's worked to get toward," Anderson said. "I'm sure he's looking forward to getting out on the floor and playing in a real game.
"... A lot of guys would give in after they've been injured a couple of times, but here's a guy who's been injured, and each time has fought to get back. Now he's a lot older, so hopefully this is his time."
The Razorbacks were outrebounded by a Southeastern Conference-worst 3.8 rebounds per game last season, and Anderson had hoped to provide an interior boost this season with the addition of Houston transfer and Arkansas native Alandis Harris.
However, the 6-6 forward — who averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds for the Cougars last season — was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA during the preseason, and must sit out this season.
Arkansas will place its interior hopes on Powell, 6-11 sophomore forward Hunter Mickelson, and junior-college transfer Coty Clarke this season. Mickelson was fourth in the SEC in blocked shots last season, averaging 2.2 per game, and his expectations are high this year — thanks to a comfort level in his second season under Anderson.
"There's probably more confidence now because everybody, as far as the older guys, kind of knows what to expect," Mickelson said.
The Razorbacks also feature four freshmen — Michael Qualls, Jacorey Williams, DeQuavious Wagner and Anthlon Bell — who have performed well during the preseason. Qualls provided several highlight-worthy dunks during the two exhibition games, and Bell averaged 14 points per game on 6-of-10 shooting from 3-point range.
Regardless of who plays how much, and with or without Young, Arkansas expects to start its season quickly on Friday night. After that, the Razorbacks hope to build toward being an SEC contender.
"We still have a ways to go," junior guard Mardracus Wade said. "Right now, I don't think we're ready yet, but we've got to keep on working and get these young guys ready.
"I think once we get this all together, it's going to be crazy out there."