Pelphrey set to make return to Arkansas

KURT VOIGT AP Sports Writer Published:

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- John Pelphrey left little doubt on his way out the door that he believed the Arkansas basketball program was nearing a turnaround. He will have a chance to see just how much progress the Razorbacks have made when he's on the visitors' bench Saturday.

Pelphrey was fired by Arkansas last March after compiling a 69-59 record in four seasons. He was hired by Florida, where he was previously an assistant under coach Billy Donovan.

Before being dismissed, Pelphrey signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. New coach Mike Anderson kept the class intact after arriving from Missouri, and it has paid off.

Arkansas (17-9, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) is undefeated in Bud Walton Arena this season, with wins over three ranked teams. The Razorbacks will face their most difficult test yet when they host No. 14 Florida (20-6, 8-3) Saturday, with their former coach on hand for the first time.

Pelphrey declined to speak about his return, preferring the focus of the game remain on the players.

That did little, however, to quell the talk.

"I'm sure internally there's probably a lot of emotions there for him," Donovan said. "I know he loves Arkansas. He loved the people there. He loved the school. He loved everything about it."

Pelphrey said after his firing that he wasn't given enough time to turn the Razorbacks around. Arkansas was 23-12 and reached the NCAA tournament in his first season, then missed the tournament the next three seasons.

One of Pelphrey's biggest supporters following his firing was Donovan, who said the school needed stability.

"I think he, as I said last year, was moving in the right direction with his program," Donovan said. "He's obviously recruited a very, very good class."

That class included four signees who had to be recruited all over again by Anderson. All four (BJ Young, Hunter Mickelson, Devonta Abron and Ky Madden) decided to stick with the Razorbacks and their impact has been immediate this season as freshmen.

Young leads Arkansas in scoring at 14.5 points per game, and the four have combined to average 32.6 of the Razorbacks' 73 points per game. Also, Mickelson has already set the school record for blocks in a season by a freshman (64), averaging 2.5 per game.

All four got to know Pelphrey well during the recruiting process and expect some awkward moments on Saturday.

"It will be strange looking down there, but I never really have sat on the same bench as him anyway," Young said. "It will be strange not seeing him in Arkansas red."

Sagging attendance was one of the reasons Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long cited for Pelphrey's firing. However, Young said Razorbacks fans should appreciate the team that Pelphrey left Anderson, and that he enjoyed getting to enjoy the man who recruited him.

"I can't speak for (Pelphrey), but I am sure coming in it will be emotional because a lot of these guys are the guys they recruited here," Anderson said.

How Pelphrey is regarded from those who actually played for him at Arkansas is less clear. Long cited the "overall student-athlete experience" as one of his reasons for letting Pelphrey go, and senior Marvell Waithe offered up only a brief smile and "No comment," when asked about his former coach.

"It's just another game," Arkansas junior Julysses Nobles said. "He was here, but he's gone now. We've just got to try and beat Florida and not worry about any of that."

What is certain is the Razorbacks are desperate for a win following a 71-58 loss at Tennessee on Wednesday that left them 0-9 away from home this season.

The Razorbacks are counting on a sellout crowd to help provide support, and they are also using Pelphrey's return as motivation.

"I circled this game when we first got the calendar," Arkansas sophomore Mardracus Wade said. "So, I know it's going to be a lot of noise. He's going to want to come in here and get a win, but at the same time, we're going to try to go at him, too. This is our house and we want to defend it."

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AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.