Arkansas’s standby excuse during the lean portions of the Mike Anderson era has been reduced to one word or its variants thereof: “youth.”
Yes, the Hogs have one contributing upperclassman in junior Adrio Bailey and the entire roster is otherwise dotted with freshmen and sophomores. Yes, there’s
And yes, we’ve also arrived at a juncture where none of that matters. Anderson’s team followed an encouraging winning streak with three consecutive thuds, a road loss at South Carolina where the hosts put together a massive mid-game run to end up winning comfortably, another narrow defeat at Missouri where again the Hogs could not cash in on an opportunity to tie or win the game late after rallying to get themselves in position to emerge
At 14-11, 5-7 in SEC play, and with a fairly weak NCAA Tournament profile anyway, Arkansas is destined to get an NIT bid, at best, and at the outset of the 2018-19 campaign, I think a lot of us zealous Razorback fans would have likely been content with that (see again, generally, “youth”). The 2017-18 team ended up underachieving and pretty much all of the statistical contributors to last season’s team were gone, with a couple of guys mysteriously transferring elsewhere to add significant stress to Anderson, his staff and this roster. We all knew it wasn’t going to be easy for the Hogs to excel, especially in a resurgent conference that had really suffered some damage to its national reputation a few short years ago. The SEC is laden with better teams, better talent and better coaches than it had been in, say, 2013-14 when only three league teams made it to the Big Dance, contrasted with last season, in which a record eight teams got bids.
There’s been nothing distinguishably impactful about Anderson’s eight-year tenure. Two narrow first-game NCAA tourney wins (2015, 2017) in three trips into the field of 68. The Hogs have won a few games in exciting fashion, with a nice upset here and there, and they’ve also come a long way in a couple of intangible, but meaningful, areas: They no longer shy away from competing on the road, and they tend to play their best under duress.
Sadly, that’s your garden-variety “damning with faint praise,” isn’t it? Why does this team, inexperience be damned, brick too many free throws, dig huge holes due to lengthy in-game stretches of malaise and confusion, shoot so erratically from long range and still not rotate quickly enough on
Even if this team’s core stays intact and adds prominent recruits for 2019–20, it all still feels very much like a setup for disappointment the following year because, well, they’ll be “young” again. Anderson has nabbed some solid players throughout his tenure, and there will always be a “what if” feeling about the 2016-17 team that had eventual national champion North Carolina very much on the ropes after a furious rally in the Round of 32. Had that team closed out a win over the top-seeded Tar Heels after wiping out a 17-point first-half deficit in dramatic fashion and some late-game breaks gone their way, Pearls might be inclined to give Anderson his due “pass” for the subpar performance the subsequent two seasons.
But that game is, and forever will be, a sort of microcosm of the Anderson era here. The team played hard, if not always smart, and competed like hell against the nation’s best. But it wilted under pressure and ultimately faltered in a very modest quest that most Hog fans would agree is a very sensible objective: Just reach the damn Sweet 16 again. After winning a title in ’94, forging a runner-up finish the next year, and getting to the Round of 16 in 1996 with a completely overhauled roster, Arkansas has not had a two-game winning streak in mid-March since. Nobody is delusional enough to believe this is a program that can rise up to those halcyon moments of a generation ago, but man, can we at least just get a mere taste of postseason success again? The fans are losing faith, interest and confidence in this coaching staff and the social media gauge has tilted against Anderson being allowed to return for a ninth season.
It’s unfortunate, but this hire, wildly celebrated in 2011 when former athletic director Jeff Long pulled the string that fans had been yearning for him to pull, was, at that time and certainly in retrospect, a decision that was laden with sentiment rather than sense. Anderson had reached the Elite 8 two years before that with a feisty Missouri team that had a lot of experience and was well disciplined. But on balance, Anderson’s overall credentials genuinely weren’t that great. He had gotten some mileage out of a memorable upset his UAB team pulled off against Kentucky in the NCAA tourney in 2004, and that’s part of what made him an appealing candidate for the Tigers, who were trying to get the grime off after the Quin Snyder era nearly sunk the program. At that same time, the Hogs were trying to claw back to respectability under Stan Heath, who inherited the wreckage after Nolan Richardson’s fiery and ugly ouster, and it’s worth noting that Heath’s last two teams did reach the NCAA Tournament but lost their opener and generally played a style that Arkansas fans couldn’t embrace or understand.
We all craved for the up-tempo, frenetic basketball that Richardson came to embody, and we saw Anderson’s “Fastest 40” as not just gimmickry, but legitimate branding. It took four years but Anderson slowly built the team into a tourney squad (with 27 wins, mind you) in 2014-15, and at that time it certainly seemed like resurgence was in effect.
Yet four years after that, Arkansas basketball remains a sort of fringe entity nationally. Anderson has been overly loyal to a staff that doesn’t seem to be particularly effective (otherwise they’d be getting head coaching offers at the rate Richardson’s assistants, Anderson among them, used to get) or even all that engaged. There’s a sense of complacency and apathy engulfing the basketball team these days, and regrettably that’s why Pearls has arrived at the point where it fully endorses and encourages Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek to make a tough decision this spring and part ways with a very