FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade remembers what it was like last season, when a team loaded with guards and depth issues tried to navigate the 32-game schedule in Mike Anderson’s up-tempo style.
“It was kind of frustrating,” Wade said. “We were basically just playing with guards.
“We played five-on-five with guards and that just wasn’t getting it done.”
But Wade knew things would be different in the offseason, when Arkansas welcomed a new crop of players to add to the returning group. There’s more size, more speed and more athleticism. And, perhaps most important to Anderson’s demanding style of play, more talented bodies to shuffle on and off the court.
“Once we saw these new guys come in, it put a smile on our face,” Wade said. “We know now we’ve got the pieces to the puzzle to help us get to where we want to go.”
So Arkansas opens its second year under Anderson with plenty of optimism when it plays Sam Houston State in Bud Walton Arena at 7 p.m.
Key players like Wade, B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell return to lead Arkansas into the new season. But this time they’re also joined by a group of seven newcomers, who have helped breathe life into the program as the Razorbacks seek their first NCAA Tournament berth since the 2007-08 season.
Anderson isn’t into preseason predications and has stressed there’s a lot of work that must be done. But after offseason workouts, four games during a trip to Italy, and Arkansas’ preseason work the past few weeks, he’s confident about one thing.
“I have a better idea about this basketball team than going into the season last year,” Anderson said. “With the trip to Italy, the chance to play four games, and the 10 days of practice prior to that, that’s huge for this team. Hopefully it’s going to pay off.”
Young won’t play tonight as he serves the final portion of his suspension for violating team rules. He also sat out the exhibition win against LeMoyne-Owen.
It won’t change Anderson’s expectations from his retooled roster, which has looked pretty comfortable on the court together in two exhibition wins. Sophomore center Hunter Mickelson said it looks like that for a reason Wednesday.
“There’s probably more confidence now because everybody, as far as the older guys, kind of knows what to expect,” Mickelson said. “We can help out the younger guys.”
The newcomers — a group that includes Athlon Bell, Coty Clarke, Michael Qualls and Jacorey Williams and Dee Wagner — have injected life into the program as well.
Anderson was impressed with the way they performed during the two exhibition games in the past week. The group came off the bench to provide a spark on Monday, tallying 69 points and 31 rebounds in a 111-45 win.
“I think for the most part those guys have confidence,” Anderson said. “They’ve played hard every time they’ve gone out. They play the right way defensively.
“They’re still learning. Sometimes they overdo some things, but one thing you don’t worry about is they will learn the intricacies as we continue to work with our team. Each time we’ve brought them in, they’ve sped the game up to a different level and then you see the athletic ability they bring to the table.”
So what will the entire group accomplish this season?
That remains to be seen. Arkansas has been projected as a fifth-place program in the 14-team Southeastern Conference behind Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee in preseason polls. Pundits regard the Hogs as a potential NCAA team.
Wade, like his coach, said Arkansas realizes it has plenty of questions to answer first as it steps into a 2012-13 schedule that includes tough nonconference games against Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Michigan in the next month.
But Wade also admitted he’s “thinking really big” as Anderson’s second season begins against Sam Houston State tonight.
“Once we get it all together, it’s going to be crazy,” Wade said. “It’s going to be wild.”