There was only one coach most Razorback fans wanted from the time the Razorbacks let the disaster that was John Pelphrey go in 2011. The Razorback faithful witnessed what happened at Missouri—a program that was almost buried by Quinn Snyder—in Missouri, and a question danced in many inside of Razorback Nation, including myself: how great it would be to see history repeated at Arkansas? The man who spearheaded the Mizzou comeback was Mike Anderson. Coach Mike Anderson reached an NCAA Elite 8 at Missouri while leaving his best team— which happened to be Final Four worthy—and which won 30 games the next season. Many speculated those things would happen at the University of Arkansas in due time, knowing that it would take time due to the mess that he inherited. I attended Coach Anderson’s introductory press conference and “I’m Coming Home,” by Dirty Money still rings in my ears. In Bud Walton Arena that day there was not anyone more excited about Hog Ball coming back to Razorback Nation. There have been some exciting moments and some big wins, but overall it just has not happened the way most envisioned.
If you will allow me for a second let’s take a trip down memory lane. I’m going to take you back to a happy place. My happy place, at least: the 90s. I love the 90s. I love anything from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to flannel shirts, from Nirvana to Snoop Dogg. Without a doubt one of the reasons the 90s are a happy place for me is Arkansas Razorbacks basketball. During the 90s, the Hogs ruled college basketball. Those Razorbacks were some bad men. Throughout my formative years Hog Ball was on center stage in the state of Arkansas and even the nation. For lack of better terms, it was just a fun time to be a Razorback fan. From the ‘88-89 season to the ‘94-95 season when the calendar turned to October most Razorbacks fans were asking, is it basketball season? In part, because the football team was almost as dreadful as they are now, but mostly because the basketball team was awesome. During that time period, under Coach Nolan Richardson, the Razorbacks had a 200-43 record and either won or tied for the conference or division championship every year. The Razorbacks also went to the NCAA Final Four three times, the NCAA Elite 8 once, the NCAA Sweet 16 once, the NCAA Second Round twice, the National Championship Game twice, and walked away with the 1994 National Championship. Mike Anderson knew what Hog Ball was all about. He sat right next to Nolan Richardson as his top assistant during Arkansas Basketball’s most successful time period. I’m not sure that anybody was expecting the program to go back to that place, but I think it is fair to say that most expected greater success.
Do not get me wrong Anderson’s 159-89, 70-54 record is a drastic improvement. To put that in perspective Arkansas was 82-71, 31-49 under Stan Heath and under John Pelphrey the Razorbacks were 69-59, 25-39. Mike Anderson is 70 games above .500 as the Razorbacks Head Coach.
Fast forward seven years and 11 games and the excitement of that hire is all but gone. Many people have abandoned the Mike Anderson bandwagon. I’m not sure that apathy has not started to set in amongst Razorback Nation. After back-to-back home losses to teams with less than stellar records it seems that this is not the end, but it feels like you can see it from here. The Mike Anderson era has an eerie Houston Nutt feel to it—good enough to get your hopes up and just bad enough to let you down. In fact, that very scenario has happened this season just 11 games in. Arkansas has beaten the best team they’ve played on their schedule so far Indiana, had an incredible road performance at Colorado State winning by 24 and scoring 98, but lost to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech. One of those teams is under .500 and the other is .500 thanks to the win over Arkansas. That is not exactly something to write home about.
Mike Anderson has a young basketball team. In fact, one of the youngest in the NCAA. Many who follow college basketball will say that is not a valid excuse in today’s college basketball. That’s easy to say if you watch Duke and the Zion Williamsons of the world. If you are Arkansas, though, the Zion Williamsons are not coming here. To that point, there have been two one-and-done players who happened to be inside the state of Arkansas since Coach Anderson’s arrival. Both were dead set on going anywhere but Arkansas. Both landed at Kentucky, an NBA feeder system. Arkansas did not have much of a chance at either player. College basketball is just different now than it was in those wonderful 90s while there are some kids that grow up wanting to be Hogs in state there are several who do not. Some of that is due to lack of high-end success since these kids were born. That does not mean that Mike has not had talent. Several former players have gone on to play pro ball overseas and one in Bobby Portis who happened to be a first round pick and SEC Player of the Year.
Anderson has another surefire first round pick in Daniel Gafford.Furthermore, this team is one of the more talented teams that Coach Anderson has had at Arkansas.
The heart of the matter is there has not be enough success to insulate Mike and his coaching staff from criticism for a lackluster season. You wonder how many more lackluster seasons Mike Anderson has in him before Arkansas makes a change. Sure, the Razorbacks have made the tournament three of the last four seasons. Seasons in which Coach Anderson’s program seemed to be more established, but obviously that leaves four seasons which he has not made the NCAA—one of those the Razorbacks were put out of the second round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Frankly, those last two home losses put Coach Anderson squarely behind the eight ball of not making the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the under his tutelage. Before Arkansas lost to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech at Bud Walton Arena the Razorbacks were on the cusp of cracking the top 25—a hill that has been difficult to climb at Arkansas for the last 20 years. In the metrics that determine NCAA seeding and who makes the tournament the Razorbacks were 33 before the Western Kentucky loss. After the loss to Georgia Tech they were 105. With those two home losses Arkansas now finds itself in a huge hole to climb out of just to make the tournament with a vastly improved SEC in front of them. Even if Arkansas finds its way into the tournament, is just making the tournament good enough at Arkansas? The easy answer to that is no. On the other hand, when you look at the Razorbacks from a 30,000 foot view they are literally about three minutes and six points from being undefeated. Is it time to push the panic button with such a young team? Many Hog fans are doing exactly that. Some fans just do not have the confidence in Coach Mike Anderson that he can get the job done. Personally, I have never bought the notion that Mike Anderson is a “bad” coach like some believe. He has won too much for that notion, winning 64 percent of his games at three rebuilding programs.
Coach Anderson is solidly the third best coach in almost 100 years of Arkansas Basketball history. While his 70 games above .500 record is a drastic improvement, his 70-54 conference record at Arkansas is where the greatest improvement has come. His predecessors combined for 46-85 conference mark. To break it down further he is 65-38 versus everybody in the SEC not named Florida and Kentucky—that is awfully strong. Those two have been college basketball superpowers since Mike has been at Arkansas. In fact, the case can be made that the Razorbacks are the third best program in the SEC since he became the coach. The question, though, is when do the Razorbacks take the next step under Coach Anderson? In a year where Arkansas had a first-year football coach go 2-10 and the basketball team is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its greatest accomplishment this does not seem to be the greatest year to have a letdown.
With Daniel Gafford almost assured to leave and become a first round NBA draft pick he’s going to leave a huge hole in the middle. Can the Razorbacks be better as a collective whole without Gafford? Today, it is hard to see happening even though there are several young, talented, pieces on this team. Taking into consideration that the Razorbacks have not made the Sweet 16 since 1996, it is time to break through. That is exactly what Coach Anderson was brought in to do.
Arkansas Razorbacks fans are hungry for a winner. The seven seasons since Bobby Petrino had the Razorbacks at number three in the BCS seem almost as long ago as the 1994 National Championship seems. The baseball team almost became the darlings of Arkansas athletics and was a missed foul ball from winning the NCAA Championship in college baseball.
There is a restlessness amongst the Razorback faithful unlike there has ever been. That puts the onus on new Athletic Director Hunter Yuracheck, who is going to have to ask himself if he believes that Mike Anderson is going to be the guy to break through that ceiling.
Make no mistake about it the Razorback faithful has higher expectations on the hardwood than they have in any sport beside track and baseball. But they care more about basketball than they do about track and baseball.
Can the Razorbacks do better? Yes they can, and it is time.