Year 1 A.H.
This year, we start with a blank slate. It is Year 1 A.H. (After Hall) for the Harding program, as one of the school’s all-time legends has graduated and moved on. Matt Hall was a freshman at the same time I was (in 2002-03), but he redshirted that year and watched the team make the NCAAs under the senior leadership of Aaron Farley and Jason Malek. He spent the next season working his way into a big offensive role, eventually becoming the #1 offensive option for the next five years.
During my senior year at Harding, the 2005-06 season, the Bisons opened the season at home against Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri S&T). Most of the campus was on break, but I had the chance to watch what would be Hall’s only game that year, as he suffered a devastating knee injury in the first half of the season’s first game. After receiving a medical redshirt, Hall came back for two more seasons as the GSC’s best player, leading the Bisons to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.
Filling his shoes will not be easy, and I wouldn’t imagine that finding one player to replace Matt Hall has been a focus of coach Jeff Morgan. He will start this season with a clean slate and a chance to begin defining the post-Hall era. There will be some returning players, of course, but the team’s identity will be completely different.
It’s tough to really quantify the impact that a player like Matt Hall has on your offense. He was a mismatch for every opponent: a player with legitimate size who could finish around the basket with ease, yet he could step out and kill you with jump shots as well. Over time, opposing defenses came to know what they were up against, but Hall couldn’t be stopped.
My preferred way of measuring a player’s effect on his team’s offense is something called Efficiency Contribution. It’s a statistic that I came up with mostly because it didn’t seem fair to put Hall on the same level playing field as everyone else in terms of efficiency. He was always being double-teamed, and it was clearly up to him to make the offense work.
So, I decided to compare players’ efficiency ratings (points produced per 100 possessions) to their teams’ ratings without them. That’s easy enough to figure out when you know both the team’s and the player’s efficiency. Hall led the GSC West in this measure for both his junior and senior seasons, and it wasn’t a close finish either year. The Bison offense had a below-average 96.9 offensive rating once you factor out Hall’s contribution. That’s a figure which would have placed them seventh in the GSC West last year, ahead of only (3-24) Henderson State. The Bisons had a middling offense even with Hall, but their solid defense earned them the division title.
So what will the team look like in 08-09? For one thing, they’ll be smaller than I can ever remember. Along with Hall, also gone from this year’s team are 6’10” center Jesse Bynum and center Jacob Thies, as well as guards Chris Dixon and Kellen Morgan.
On the inside, there will either be new faces in the starting lineup, or a much smaller overall team. True freshman Zach Roddenberry is 6’7″/230 lbs. and will step in as the team’s largest player (I’ve actually seen him listed as 6’8″ and 6’9″ elsewhere, so he may be taller). He averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at Salem HS (GA) and appears to have turned down at least one D-I football offer (at Tulane) to come to Harding. Senior Brian Howard will be the team’s other big man, but at 6’6″ that’s only relative. He’ll have to improve his offensive game to be a real factor, but defensively Howard can bring some excitement.
Moving down the position-height spectrum to forward, the Bisons return talented sophomore Kevin Brown. Brown is an athlete of the same mold as Matt Hall, but he doesn’t have the outside game (yet) to be a factor other than under the basket. He had the highest field goal percentage on the team, though, and the third-highest offensive rating. Also a solid defender, Brown is already in the Bisons’ all-time top 20 with 27 blocked shots in his freshman year, and he didn’t even average 20 minutes per game. That will change this year, and you could safely call Brown the team’s best returning player.
Forward Kirk Porter is also returning, although this will be his first season on the court as a redshirt freshman. Porter was a key player for the 2007 Arkansas 5A state champs from Greene County Tech and is fairly highly regarded as far as D2 prospects go. I imagine he will play a role from day one, if not start. Also listed as a 6’2″ forward is a freshman from Harrison (AR), Matt Walters, whom I’ve seen listed at 6’4″ in a few other places.
The Bisons are loaded with guards, yet both (or perhaps all three?) of the starting spots are probably locked up. We’ll start with the returnees.
Senior guard Steven Barnett is the only remaining player from when I was a Harding student, and he will likely be the team’s starting point guard. While he is certainly a good defender, Barnett still doesn’t have much of an offensive game despite getting regular minutes for his entire career. While he ran the offense adequately and picked up some assists, he was more turnover prone than you’d like your junior point guard to be.
Junior Trent Morgan is a tad undersized at the two and really would be ideal as a 1 if he could run the offense. He leads all returning players in three-pointers made, attempted, and three-point percentage, which contributed to his very good 60.2 true shooting percentage last year. He wasn’t exactly a consistent scorer, but he does have the highest scoring average of returning players at 11.8. He is not as good as Barnett defensively and is a bit under-athletic for a 6’2″ starting off-guard. He will still likely fill that role this season, and he could be a good scorer with more improvement.
Calvin Rayford is the other returning senior on the team, and he would seem to be an incumbent for either a third starting guard spot or the sixth man role. Ideally, he would be used as a spot-up shooter off the bench, but he absolutely will have to make more shots to be valuable in that role this year. The 6’1″ guard shot just over 30% from the field and 28% from beyond the arc, which gave him a team-worst 40.2 true shooting percentage. A better offensive reputation than that preceded him, so we’ll see if he can become merely an average offensive player this year. He’s not a particularly good ball-handler or a world-beater defensively, at least not from what I’ve seen.
Junior Matt Garner is the other returning guard. His offensive year was similar to Rayford’s, only with fewer three-point bricks and more two-point bricks. He played a little more inside and picked up more rebounds than Rayford, but he didn’t have as many assists. With his position somewhat redundant and the team even deeper at guard this year, I’d be surprised if he tops last year’s 10 minutes per game (in 25 games), barring some kind of major offseason improvement.
Along with the four returnees, there are four new guards on this year’s roster. Freshman Bradley Spencer led his Lonoke (AR) team to the 4A state title this past year and was the MVP of the Arkansas HS All-Star game. Spencer also ran on the track team for Lonoke, so he presumably has some quickness and athleticism. He’s 6′ even and probably the future point guard, and there’s no telling if he’ll play this year or redshirt.
All of the other newcomers at guard will be sophomores. Sam Brown transferred in from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, and I imagine he’s glad to come to a school with a name that has fewer than ten syllables. That’s about all I know on Brown, other than what’s on his page on the Harding roster: he played in 28 games last year and shot 51% from the field, 37% from outside. I’m not sure if he’ll play.
The descriptions I’ve read of Stephen Blake evoke images of recent Bison sharp-shooter Lonnie Smith. The 5’9″ guard should be an excellent shooter, like Lonnie, when he can get the ball off against taller defenders. Blake is a transfer from North Arkansas College, and his bio page mentions that he dropped 45 points in one game last season, including eight threes. Hopefully he’s an adequate defender, because it would be nice to have someone like that on the floor to keep opponents honest. There’s another Steve Blake I’d prefer to forget, so here’s to creating some new memories.
Tony Hall is the last of the incoming guards, and I don’t have very much information on him. He originally went to Riverview HS in Searcy and won a head-to-head matchup for the 2007 3A state title against new teammate Kevin Brown (Hughes HS). From there, he went to Wallace State-Hanceville (LA) for his freshman year and played with highly-recruited sophomore Cory Cooperwood, who had also gone to Riverview and is now at Wright State.
Any other scouting reports are certainly welcome, since I haven’t personally seen any of the new guys.
To put all of that together, the Bisons are a smaller team than usual, but there’s enough talent to make this an interesting team. If Brown can improve significantly and the more talented newcomers are able to contribute immediately, the Bisons won’t suffer a huge post-Hall letdown. Every year, it seems like some of the new talent pans out and some doesn’t, and this year will likely be no different. One encouraging fact is the team’s youth. There are more underclassmen on this team than other recent teams, so the future is bright. The Bisons have been picked fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, which sounds about right, but I’ll get to that when I quickly go through the other teams (hopefully on Monday).