As Arkansas basketball has meandered toward irrelevancy over the years, there have two common contributing themes:
1. The Hogs have had a long-standing and pressing need for perimeter shooting, one that Rotnei Clarke was recruited specifically to resolve; and
2. The team has been, by and large, bereft of a true “floor general,” who can almost by himself alter the trajectory of any given game with an emotion-swinging play.
Mike Qualls, are you that guy?
Because so far in 2013-14, a genuinely pivotal campaign for the health of the program and whatever legacy Mike Anderson may cultivate here, it seems that the sophomore from Shreveport has the “it” factor. Even mega-talents like Joe Johnson and Ronnie Brewer, Jr. weren’t quite able to fit comfortably into the mold of team leader. That wasn’t necessarily an indictment of how they played in their time on the Hill: both shined plenty, but there was substantial team dysfunction in the way.
Qualls happens to play on a team that, so far, seems to be a lot more enthusiastic and organized on the court. The vestiges of the John Pelphrey era are fading, and in its place, there’s a team with an actual nucleus and pulse. Off to a mostly commendable 6-2 start, these Razorbacks look far more engaged, and it’s largely stemming from the energy that transfer Alandise Harris has brought, and the myriad gifts that Qualls has displayed.
He’s a likable character, too, anything but generic with his long wingspan, acrobatic flushes and distinctive hairstyle. When last year’s team was felled by another late-season swoon, Qualls was actually in full flourish as a player, scoring when he had to but mostly giving the squad whatever boost he could on the glass (11 boards against Tennessee, for instance) and on the defensive end (three blocks in a narrow loss at LSU). The effort that he gave was enough that it forced Anderson to wrest minutes away from other, more experienced players, and it’s what gave the lanky guard momentum going into a new year.
Qualls has started this season afire, and it isn’t just the fact that he’s hit double figures in every game, but the shocking efficiency he’s shown. In an era where the average two-guard lofts too many shots to net too few points, Qualls is the antithesis. He’s hoisting less than 10 attempts per game, which is a testament to a mature brand of shot selection rather than a reticence to pull the trigger. His 55 percent shooting from the field is evidence enough of the strides he’s made, but when you factor in his excellent three-point stroke and free throw accuracy thus far (50 percent and 81 percent, respectively), you get a more complete picture of what may well become a complete player.
The stat line he flaunted in the weekend win over Clemson, a possible tournament-quality team, was unimpeachable: 6-7 shooting, including two successful tries from long range, and six rebounds and two assists in only 27 minutes. Being a discriminating shooter is one thing, but Qualls is also fiendishly careful with the ball for someone with such dynamic abilities, turning it over only once in that game and only 13 times all season.
So, sure, the competition thus far hasn’t been daunting. But if any truism has emerged in the last few years, it’s that the vault from non-conference play to SEC games isn’t quite what it once was. And that’s where the measure of Qualls’ progress will genuinely be on display. Arkansas is more than capable of contending for conference supremacy, because this is again a bottom-heavy league that likely won’t place more than four teams in the NCAA tourney field. Despite the softened quality of the league generally, Arkansas hasn’t been able to secure enough road wins and has been tagged by agonizing, bad losses.
That’s why this team will continue to go as Qualls goes. When he committed to play for Anderson two years ago, he was something of a mystery, a three-star guy whose YouTube clips suggested five-star skill. Now that he is performing at a level commensurate with his gifts, he may have already evolved into the best asset of the post-Richardson era, physically well-rounded but, most importantly, court-savvy beyond his experience.