story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
Now that the Final Four lineup has been set, most of America’s focus is turned towards next weekend’s big event down in the Big Easy. However, for those in the Natural State, the biggest concern surrounding college basketball is when the Razorbacks will get back to the NCA A Tournament and, ultimately, another Final Four.
While the Missouri Tigers experienced an extremely early exit from the tournament despite being a No. 2 seed, UA fans and supporters should look no further than toward the newest Southeastern Conference member to gain hope and perspective for what awaits the men’s hoops program under the guidance and leadership of Mike Anderson.
Not to take anything away from Frank Haith, who did a tremendous job guiding the MU team this season, but it was Anderson’s vision and recruiting that allowed Haith to take over a squad that would win the Big 12 tournament and 30 games in 2011-12. The roster that Anderson assembled was nearly everyone’s favorite to make it to New Orleans and caused plenty of discussion as to why Mizzou did not receive a No. 1 seed when the selection committee unveiled the bracket two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the here and now for Arkansas isn’t exactly noteworthy. The Razorbacks finished the year 18-14, including a 6-10 mark in the SEC, and took a first-round loss in the conference tournament to wrap up Anderson’s debut campaign.
“It was a fast season,” Anderson said at his wrap-up press conference. “Thinking back on when I first came in here at the end of March, and here we are almost a year removed and have already gone through a season. It was a year where there were a lot of unknowns.
“When you look at the big picture of what happened this year, there were guys that gave us everything they had. As a coach, that’s what you want. We started off without a lot of bodies, and I think that was the biggest factor this year.”
The results of a team like Missouri may take some time. It took Anderson three years in Columbia, Mo., to reach a Sweet 16. The 2008-09 Tigers reached the Elite Eight, Anderson’s fourth year at MU.
The Razorbacks may have had a much different ending to the year if it wasn’t for a season-ending injury suffered by junior Marshawn Powell in late November.
“When you lose a guy with all-conference caliber, it puts a lot of pressure on the other guys,” Anderson explained. “You end up having to get a lot of unknowns become known.”
One of those “unknowns” heading into the year was freshman BJ Young. Young averaged 15.3 points per contest and garnered All-SEC second team (coaches) and All-SEC Honorable Mention (Associated Press) honors for his efforts. Young will be a key component in the Arkansas program for the next two or three seasons.
The high points would include a 66-64 win over NCAA Tournament participant and then-ranked No. 20 Michigan on Jan. 21. The victory over the Wolverines was part of an impressive 16-6 start for UA.
Arkansas improved to 16-0 at Bud Walton Arena with an 82-74 triumph over eventual SEC Tournament Champion Vanderbilt on Jan. 31. In all, the Hogs finished 17-3 in Fayetteville, a big step in regaining a home-court advantage Arkansas basketball had lost over the past few years.
Good things await Arkansas basketball. It just may take some time.
“There is a great tradition here at Arkansas,” Anderson said. “There’s an expectation level for how our teams are going to play.”
The fact that Anderson left behind a team like he did at Missouri should be more than enough evidence to prove that he’s the right choice to re-establish that tradition.