Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey dropped a bombshell Thursday when he announced the indefinite suspension of Courtney Fortson. That meant the Razorbacks will not have their starting point guard against Kentucky on Saturday.
Fortson has directed Arkansas all season. Earlier this season, he recorded a triple-double, which reflects his all-around importance to the Razorbacks.
At his customary news conference to discuss the upcoming game, Pelphrey refused to say why he suspended Fortson.
"I think we deserve a disciplined program," Pelphrey said. "I think the coaching we've had, the players we've had, the success we've had, it's just what I believe."
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Fortson, a 5-foot-11 freshman from Montgomery, Ala., is the Razorbacks' second-leading scorer at 14.6 points per game. He leads the team in assists (6.5 per game), minutes (32.4 mpg), steals (28) and turnovers (95). He's also second on the team in rebounds (5.3 rpg).
Fortson recorded his triple-double against North Carolina Central on Dec. 10. He had 20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in that game.
Arkansas' next leading assist man is Stefan Welsh, with 2.3 a game. As a part-time point guard last season, Welsh had 74 assists and 67 turnovers.
Pelphrey did not name a player to take over the point guard duties.
"Do I have a lot of options?" he said. "... We'll see."
Through last weekend's league games, Fortson ranked second in assists among Southeastern Conference players with an average of 5.6 per game. He was also tied for third in steals (1.9 a game).
Fortson was named Alabama's Mr. Basketball in 2007. Last season he attended prep school at The Patterson School in North Carolina.
As for player reaction, Pelphrey made only two freshmen available to media covering the Arkansas team.
Freshman starter Mike Sanchez acknowledged how the suspension created a huge void.
"It's going to be hard," he said. "I just think we've got some guys that are going to need to pick up the slack."
When asked if Arkansas could beat Kentucky without Fortson, Sanchez said, "Yes. We have more than enough to win that game. We've had more than enough this season. We've just got to finish it out."
Pelphrey noted the importance of handling adversity and soldiering on without the point guard.
"I expect the Razorbacks to get out there and play hard," he said. " I expect us to have an unbelievable attitude, to encourage our teammates, to understand what it's all about to be a part of a team and to do your job — to handle adversity. I think we should act a certain way, whether we're winning or whether we're losing.
"Do I understand there's going to be some challenges to that? I certainly do. I certainly do. Like I said before, I'm not perfect and neither are the young men I coach. That doesn't mean we can't work at it very, very hard and do the best we can."
Pelphrey has a reputation for being a disciplinarian, even to the point of hurting his team's chances of winning. Earlier this season, he indefinitely suspended freshman Brandon Moore because of misdemeanor traffic charges.
Most famously, Pelphrey suspended three starters before his South Alabama team played a high-stakes game against Louisiana-Monroe.
It was a matchup of Sun Belt Conference division leaders, and ESPN was televising the game. South Alabama was at home and on a roll with six straight victories.
"I was down in John's office, and I wasn't going to tell him what to do, but I said, 'John we've got 10,000 seats in our arena out there. Those kids can run a lot of steps at 5 o'clock in the morning,'" South Alabama Athletic Director Joe Gottfried recalled in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "He just smiled and said, 'No, we're going to do it this way.'"
Even without the suspended starters South Alabama won 64-57 and went on to win the Sun Belt regular-season championship.
"I think some other coaches in the same situation might have looked the other way and done it differently, found a way around it and played those kids John suspended," Gottfried said. "But the point about John Pelphrey is he's going to do it his way and he's going to be an excellent disciplinarian."
Like his old coach Rick Pitino, Pelphrey tried to turn this negative into a positive for Arkansas. He spoke of how one player's absence creates opportunity for others.
"What more of an opportunity could you have than to play for the University of Arkansas — noon game, CBS, I believe — against the winningest program of all time?," Pelphrey said. "What a great opportunity."