Noland, Hill, Gafford make a mundane day interesting

Daniel Gafford / Photo:

For what on the surface was just another day in June, Thursday provided Hog fans with a ton of news of comings, goings, changes and moves within several Arkansas Razorbacks programs.

At the end of the day, though, the picture was a lot clearer than when it first began.

Perhaps the biggest or most important news going forward for the Razorbacks was Connor Noland’ decision to give up playing football for the Razorbacks to focus solely on pitching for Dave Van Horn’s Diamond Hogs.

It certainly wasn’t an unexpected decision. Noland was a weekend starter for the Razorbacks nearly from the jump this season, and he along with fellow freshman Patrick Wicklander have the chance to be co-aces for the Hogs next season as sophomores.

To be the best pitcher he can be, Noland needs to give his undivided attention to baseball.

As a Razorback fan, I’d love to see him fight it out with graduate transfers Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel, incoming freshman K.J. Jefferson, and returning quarterbacks John Stephen Jones, Jack Lindsey, and Daulton Hyatt for the starting quarterback job.

However, despite him quarterbacking the Hogs to one of its two football victories last season, a 20-0 decision over Tulsa, it’s clear Noland, who could have signed a pro baseball contract out of high school, has a better chance of being successful in professional sports as a pitcher than a quarterback.

Noland also made the great decision of not sitting on the information throughout the summer. Obviously, the decision was Noland’s to announce at any time he wanted, but it had already become a topic of conversation on various sports talk shows, and every Hog fan was wondering. It was certainly good for him to put us out of our misery on the subject, and probably good for Van Horn’s baseball program and Chad Morris’ football program.

Other comings and goings for the Razorback baseball program is news that former Fayetteville High right-handed pitcher Miller Pleimann (6-4, 190) is transferring to Arkansas after a year at Wichita State, and that is reporting that junior Razorback Jordan McFarland entered his name into the transfer portal. Entering one’s name in the transfer portal doesn’t mean a player is absolutely leaving, but it certainly means he is considering his options.

Maybe the most confusing bit of information to surface Thursday was that freshman Justice Hill, a 5-9 basketball player from Little Rock, entered his name in the transfer portal.

Hill, who committed to Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks as a freshman in high school, played his senior year of football at Pulaski Academy, leading his squad to a state championship as quarterback, but opted not to play his senior year of basketball to join the Hog hoopsters in January. He practiced with the team, but redshirted.

However, when Anderson was fired after the Hogs were bounced from the NIT in the second round by Indiana, many wondered what Hill would do.

Fitz Hill, Justice’s father, is good friends with Anderson from their time as assistant coaches in the Razorback program in the 1990s into the 2000s. Hill coached under Danny Ford and Houston Nutt at Arkansas before a head coaching sting at San Joes State.

Hill, now president of Arkansas Baptist College, had been a vocal supporter of Anderson in his role as a commentator on the Little Rock-based “DriveTime Sports.”

Hill wrote on Twitter Thursday that he is considering his options about transferring to another Power 5 school to play basketball, but that he would also like to talk to the Razorback football staff about the opportunity of joining the team.

Toward the end of the basketball season while the Hogs were practicing spring ball, Morris said that Hill had talked about joining the Razorbacks during spring practice, and that there was a number of positions he could play including defensive back, wide receiver, and quarterback.

However, Hill never joined the team for spring football, likely wanting to spend as much time in new Razorback head basketball coach Eric Musselman’s program as possible.

The sticking point, though, that while Hill unquestionably is a Division I basketball talent, he’s not ideal for Musselman’s style of play. Musselman is a proponent of positionless, pace and space basketball. He wants big guards who can shoot the three-pointer.

At 5-9, that’s not really Hill’s game. He’s a penetrator and a creator that would have worked well in Anderson’s less rigid system.

It appears there wasn’t a scholarship for Hill as Musselman attempted to manage his talent on hand and bring in the best talent he could find for his system. Even if there had been a spot for Hill this season, with Musselman offering at least six scholarships to rising high school seniors this spring, Hill could have been squeezed out next year.

That type of churn is part and parcel when coaching changes are made.

I personally hope there is room for Hill on the Razorback football team and that he opts to remain a Hog. While there is no doubt that Musselman, Morris, and Van Horn have to reach beyond the state’s borders for talent to become and in Van Horn’s case remain competitive in the SEC, Arkansas needs young men from all across the state who grew up wanting to be Razorbacks involved in the program if they are talented enough to play in the SEC.

Hill knew he wanted to be a Hog from his very first year of high school, committed to the Razorbacks, and stuck to it despite other offers in basketball and football.

That’s the kind of Razorback spirit the program needs whether it’s on the hardwood or the gridiron.
It would be a shame to see Hill competing for another program if there is room for him at Arkansas.
The happiest news, of course, was El Dorado native Daniel Gafford being drafted with the 38th pick of the NBA Draft in the second round by the Chicago Bulls.

Gafford is the first Razorback that’s been selected in the NBA Draft since the Bulls also picked Bobby Portis with the 22nd pick in the first round. Portis is now with the Washington Wizards, but there is talk that he could be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, it’s unfortunate Gafford didn’t get taken in the first round as he likely thought he would be when he decided to forego the final two years of his college career, but Gafford’s best basketball is ahead of him.

While there is no doubt, he could have learned from Musselman and his staff, the dye was cast before Anderson was fired. The 6-11, fleet-footed Gafford was going pro, and everyone knew it.

There is no guarantee in the NBA with second rounders. Most don’t make teams. That’s just the cold hard facts.

That said because of his size, quickness, speed, agility, and ability to defend the rim, Gafford won’t be treated like every other second rounder. He’ll get time to develop, particularly his offensive skills, and he’ll only get better as a defender and a rebounder.

I think he’s a Hog we’re going to watch for a relatively long time in the NBA.