AMPed Up Sports/Outdoors

Sports: Full Court Press

February/March 2016 Issue

Will the University of Arkansas’
new $25 million basketball
practice facility pay off?

Photography courtesy of Razorback Communications

Top photo: Team investment: Men’s basketball practice court

In early October 2015, Mike Anderson led a group of reporters into his spacious office in the University of Arkansas basketball program’s newly opened Basketball Performance Center. The $25 million center, which houses two practice courts for the men’s and women’s teams and many more amenities, is a point of pride for the athletic program and Anderson, the men’s head basketball coach.

“We were the last to get one in the league, but I think we got it right,” he said. As reporters walked through his office, replete with a large “BOSS HOG” ornament, leather couch and fine wooden desk, Anderson shepherded them out to his office balcony. “You’ll like the view here,” he said, looking toward Bud Walton Arena directly across the street to the north. Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium stands not too far beyond that. “We can do a little tailgating out here as well.”

In theory, yes, the 56-year-old Anderson has more potential leisure time than ever before. These practice courts mean he no longer has to spend time untangling scheduling kinks involving Bud Walton Arena, which houses the team’s home court. But, the University of Arkansas athletic department didn’t take on a more than $15.3 million bond issue while pouring $3.3 million of its own reserves into this facility so that Anderson’s office balcony could be home to legendary parties. Nor did the department’s fundraising arm, which contributed $6.35 million.

Boosting Practice Time

Arkansas leaders expected the project would yield results after opening last summer. Now that players and coaches have used it for half a year, is the university getting a good return on investment?

At least two answers emerge. One is more short term, looking at the basic issue of whether the players have become more skilled than they would have been without a practice gym. The other involves a bigger scope: Does this facility actually help the program move ahead of its conference competitors as opposed to simply keeping pace?

On the first front, the facility’s basic function is to help Razorback players to practice, train for and study the game longer and more efficiently. Its film room, sideline smart board, weight room, training tables and laundry system are all geared towards this end.

“The biggest advantage of a practice facility is that it gives players a chance to go and work out whenever,” said John Pelphrey, former head Razorback basketball coach and analyst for the SEC Network.

Before this summer, players did not have convenient 24/7 access to their own court to practice on their own. Both men’s and women’s teams used Bud Walton Arena as a practice court. The practice facility’s convenience is most useful in the winter, when the team still often practices at Bud Walton Arena. However, in the summer, events like the Wal-Mart Stores shareholders’ annual meeting, coaches’ basketball clinics and multiple graduation ceremonies limit its court availability.

“It was really tough for us,” Razorback guard Jabril Durham recalls. “We had to go call maybe a high school or call Ramay Junior High to get a goal up to shoot. But now that we have a practice facility, it’s great, 24/7 access. You can go in there at 1 in the morning if you want to. Coach texts us, kicks us out,” the senior adds, chuckling. “He won’t let us go in there at 2 a.m.”

Other Razorbacks such as Dusty Hannahs say they ended up practicing more in the offseason because of the facility.

In the first two months of the season, it appeared that the extra shooting and scrimmaging was paying off. Despite losing a raft of talented players from the previous season, the 2015-16 Hogs were averaging 18 assists a game, a level the program hadn’t reached since its mid-1990s glory years. Moreover, these Razorbacks were shooting 44 percent from three-point range as a team. That would smash the previous record of 39.5 percent set in 1992-93. Sharpshooter Hannahs, in his first year playing varsity for Arkansas, shares credit for this alongside players who had significantly improved their efficiency and accuracy from the previous season.

Returning the Investment

Coaches and administrators also expect the Basketball Performance Center to help land better players. Durham said it offers certain amenities, such as private locker rooms and higher-quality showers, which other programs he visited as a recruit lacked. The relative luxury “helps with recruiting,” he said.

Since basketball is only a five-man sport, the presence of a few elite recruits often separates NCAA Tournament contenders from NCAA Tournament winners. Arkansas got more of these kinds of players in the 1980s and 1990s than it has in the 21st century.

Some fans believe the program’s lack of a practice facility hurt its ability to attract elite recruits in the 2000s through early 2010s as every other SEC program built one of its own. Pelphrey recalls talks about building a practice facility were ongoing during his 2007-2011 tenure, but he doesn’t believe the absence significantly hamstrung his recruiting. He points out he still signed a class in his last season at Arkansas which many national outlets ranked around No. 10.

Anderson, who succeeded Pelphrey, was on the brink of landing another top 10 class this past fall by signing three of the nation’s top 5 ranked junior college players. Two of those players, Jaylen Barford and Arlando Cook, both said the new facility wasn’t a major factor in swaying them but did help cement their decision to go with Arkansas over the likes of the University of Louisville, Louisiana State University, University of Missouri and University of Florida.

The Razorbacks’ potentially high national recruiting ranking took a hit, though, when its top target in the class of 2016 opted for the Kentucky Wildcats. Bentonville High School star Malik Monk, a top 5 national recruit, toured the Arkansas facility in October and was shown all the bells and whistles: the hydrotherapy pools, players’ lounge, gleaming equipment room and a literal hall of fame showcasing the 12 Razorbacks who have ever been drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. Monk has repeatedly stated his goal of becoming an NBA superstar and his recruiters understood he wanted a place that best increased his chances of achieving that.
In its facility, Kentucky showcases its own NBA production. Unfortunately for Arkansas, the Razorbacks have no hope of competing in this specific metric: the Wildcats produced 12 first round picks in the last four years alone.

The jury is still out on whether Arkansas’ Basketball Performance Center will help the program build on a 27-win season in 2014-15. That season was the result of a steady six-year climb in each season’s wins. Arkansas also had similarly steady upward trend lines in 1986 through 1991 and 2003 through 2008. After each of those climbs, the program’s win totals took a plunge for a couple seasons and the process started over.

No such cycles occur in the world of big-time college sports facilities. Here, spending doesn’t dip. If it isn’t building projects, it’s renovation of some sort or another.

“These people are constantly tinkering with things,” Pelphrey said. “It would be no different than changing out TVs in a football stadium or updating computers in somebody’s office.”

Programs not in a constant build mode are in danger of being left behind. This partially explains the impetus for Razorback athletic leaders to spearhead multiple major projects since 2010. Aside from the basketball facility, the UA has built a $23 million student-athlete study center, a $9.6 million baseball training facility and a $40 million football practice and staff headquarters. Expect more project announcements in coming years even if the basketball, football and baseball squads fail in their top objective of landing championships.

Win or lose, the training must go on.


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