Entering tonight’s game against Alabama, the Razorback basketball program’s identity still isn’t set. In theory, its foundation is a tenacious defensive “40 Minutes of Hell” philosophy which is supposed to turn foes into whimpering newts. In reality, three weeks into the SEC conference season, the Hogs are a far more impressive offensive team while ranking at the bottom or near the bottom in multiple SEC defense categories.
The extent to which Arkansas can improve here – especially on the road – will determine how many fans believe head coach Mike Anderson has finally, unequivocally turned the program around.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to chart how Anderson himself monitors the progress – and lack thereof – of his team’s performances on a week-by-week basis. He provided the following insight early this week on his own show – Full Court Press with Mike Anderson:
@ Tennessee 74
“To me, it’s a lesson for our guys. You got to show up and play, no matter where you’re playing. You got to show up and play with energy, you got to show up and play with toughness, and you got to play together with teamwork.”
“I want us to be less predictable. I think we’re more predictable now, and I think that’s why teams are really attacking us. We got some time to get it right, and we will get it right.”
Hogs’ Conference Record: 2-1
Hogs’ Conference Road Record: 1-1
Ole Miss 96
@ Arkansas 82
“Our defense has really, really, really got to get back on track as far as guarding people.”
“They played a lot of zone against us, and we hadn’t seen a lot of it, and they came out with the win.”
“Our guard players got to pick up defensively, our forward players got to pick up defensively, and I think just overall we’ve just got to be connected with our bench – which has been our strength. They didn’t have one of those particular nights that we really love.”
Hogs’ Conference Record: 2-2
Hogs’ Conference Road Record: 1-1
“We’re better than where we were last year, but we’re nowhere where we need to be as contenders,” Hog legend Corey Beck* told Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly. “We’ve still got a long, long way to go.”
*Whom the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective tongue-and-cheekily qualified as one of the NBA’s biggest partiers of all time (when taking into account FG% difference between Sunday games and all other games).
For Razorback fans, the question never gets old: Will basketball coach Mike Anderson lift the program to the same levels reached by his mentor Nolan Richardson? Tonight’s game, on the road against No. 20 Iowa State, should provide the best start of an answer yet. The greatest Arkansas teams of the early to mid 1990s regularly defeated ranked non-conference teams away from home but that hasn’t happened since 1997*. But, so far, all signs point to this being the best Arkansas team since that era.
The most dramatic evidence is below. Look at this steady improvement through Anderson’s first four seasons in Fayetteville:
The Razorbacks’ scalding shooting from the outside this season – 46% on three-pointers – has been a major reason for the boost in Effective FG % and True Shooting % (definitions below). That shooting helps space the floor and lead to a nation-leading assist rate. But the Razorbacks can’t rely on shooting at this clip in the kind of hostile environment the Cyclones’ Hilton Coliseum will present. So it’s important they get to the line and build an early lead.
Referee bias (conscious or not) toward the home college team makes it doubly difficult for visitors to play from behind or in a back-and-forth affair. “On the road especially you want to help keep the officiating out of it as much as you can,” Nolan Richardson said in a phone interview.
As always, defense fuels offense for a “40 Minutes of Hell”-style program. The below numbers show that while Arkansas is playing at a faster rate than ever in the Anderson era (78 possessions per 40 minutes vs. 72 in his first year), they are barely giving up more points. This is a credit to the lower rate at which they are fouling this year than the past two seasons (more experienced players) and fresher second-half legs generating turnovers at a higher clip (more depth).
It’s likely older Razorback stars like Bobby Portis, Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls will play well at Iowa State, where the Cyclones are 50-4 the last five years, Iowan-Arkansan sportswriter Nate Olson points out. They proved they could deliver on the road last season and have played in similarly intense arenas like Kentucky’s.
The pivotal issue is how Arkansas’ three first-year guards – Anton Beard, Jabril Durham and Nick Babb – play. “You’re as good as your guards take you,” Richardson said. So far, all three have played their supporting roles well but they have played in only one game away from Bud Walton Arena. While often what’s needed is a timely, clutch three in the vein of Scotty Thurman, this year the right play may simply be avoiding a turnover and making a timely entry pass to Portis. Last year, “we got discombobulated in the final few minutes of games,” Portis told USA Today, recalling seven losses in ten road games. “Are we going to finish teams off? That’s the biggest question.”
To me, North Little Rock native Anton Beard is the most important of the three young guards. Perhaps I’m simply biased, as I have followed him closely since he was a freshman in high school and seen many of his games at Parkview High and North Little Rock. He’s a champion, point blank, winning three state titles in four years. Point guards simply don’t start for Parkview coach Al Flanigan as freshmen. He’s the only one who has, and that season I watched him lead his team to a victory at Hall High School in the middle of its four-year run of consecutive state championships.
So far, Beard the collegian freshman has played the role of a scrappy, clutch shooter (46.2% on threes) off the bench who has a not-stellar 1.2 assists-to 1 turnover ratio. “Beard is moving in a pretty good direction,” Richardson said. “For the Razorbacks to be where they got to be, his game has got to improve.” Beard is fairly stocky, but Richardson says he (and all other current Razorback guards) don’t compare in the physical toughness department to Corey Beck, the point guard of his ’94 title team. “Beck was an animal.”
Perhaps the most apt comparison for Beard, at this point, is Arlyn Bowers who ended up pairing with Lee Mayberry as guards in Arkansas’ 1990 Final Four run. Two years before that, Bowers and Mayberry were just starting out as freshmen in Nolan Richardson’s fourth year as head coach.
Just six games into Year 4, it’s difficult to conduct a thorough comparison of Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson as Razorback head coaches. Obviously, the jury’s still out on Anderson. But the sample size is large enough now to at least take a look:
Comparing these numbers with the last four seasons, we see Anderson’s teams have improved at more steady clip, year by year, in most categories. And from an overall statistical standpoint, Anderson’s Year 4 is significantly more impressive so far than Nolan’s.
But it’s important to note that Nolan’s Year 3 team finished 11-5 in conference vs. the 10-8 record Mike’s Year 3 team had. Nolan made the tournament in 1987-88 (losing in the first round to Villanova) whereas Mike hasn’t yet. In Year 4, Nolan got a massive injection of talent when Bowers and Mayberry arrived, along with fellow freshmen Todd Day and Oliver Miller. Their play paid immediate dividends, and the Hogs ultimately finished 13-3 in conference and 25-7 overall. They lost in the 1989 NCAA Tournament’s second round.
We’ll see if Mike’s Year 4 team keeps pace. A win tonight certainly certainly helps toward that end.
* November 29, 1997 was the last time Arkansas beat a ranked team on a neutral court in pre-conference play. Arkansas beat No. 17 Fresno State in Phoenix. And December 6, 1992 was the last time the program scored such a win on the road. The Hogs beat No. 9 Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Mike Bibby was 14 years old.
** Using data from six of Hogs’ first seven games in 1988-89 (Box score from Game No. 5 not available at HogStats.com).PS: Partial season data not available for Turnovers Forced Per Game, so this stat instead reflects per-game average from entire 1988-89 season.
Effective Field Goal % adds weight to three-point shots. Formula: (FGM + (0.5 x 3PM))/FGA
True Shooting % is similar, but also factors in free throws. Formula: Pts/(2*(FGA + (.44*FTA)))
This morning, I had an enjoyable interview with Grant Hall and Vernon Tarver, co-hosts of Press Row on KREB 1190 FM in Northwest Arkansas.
One of our topics was how the coaching turnover at Arkansas since Nolan Richardson’s firing in 2002 had contributed to the Hogs being the worst team on the road in the last decade despite being good enough to be the fourth-best home team. [I wrote about this subject in detail after talking to Pat Bradley for this New York Times article].
From 2002 through 2011, Arkansas had four full-time head coaches, as well as an interim head coach when Mike Anderson took over for Richardson at the end of 2002. The Hogs have had seven winning seasons since then.
Grant Hall wondered if other Division I programs had more coaching turnover than the Hogs, which led me to research the issue.
Thanks to sports-reference.com, I found out that there at least 10 programs with coaching carousel that have recently spun faster than Arkansas':
Pepperdine – Five coaches 2005-2011 [One of these coaches, Eric Bridgeland, stepped into the the role midway through the 2007-08 season on an interim basis; no winning seasons since 2004-05].
Utah – Five coaches 2004-11 [One of these coaches, Kerry Rupp, stepped into the the role during the 2003-04 season on an interim basis; three winning seasons since 2003-04].
Southeast Missouri State – Four full-time coaches 2006-2009 [Former Arkansas assistant Scott Edgar and Little Rock native Dickey Nutt have been part of this dizzying carousel; one winning season since 2005-06]
Wyoming – Four coaches 2007-11 [One head coach, Fred Langley, served on an interim basis in 2010-11]
Texas Tech – Four coaches 2008-12 [Pat Knight took over for his father, Bobby, during the 2007-08 season; one winning season since 2007-08]
Georgia State – Four coaches 2002-2011 [Michael Perry took over for Lefty Driesell mid-season 2002-03; two winning seasons since 2002-2003]
Texas A&M – Four coaches 2004-2011, including current Arkansas assistant Melvin Watkins [had seven winning seasons since 2003-04]
Eastern Washington – Four coaches 2004-2011 [no winning seasons since 2003-04]
Princeton – Four coaches 2003-2011 [all four winning seasons since 2003-04 have come in the last four years, under two coaches]
Alcorn State – Four coaches 2003-2011 [Just a whole lot of losing seasons here, folks. That happens in the SWAC]
Of these programs, only three – Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Utah – belong to major conferences like Arkansas.
It would be interesting to compare how much player turnover there was at these programs and see if that correlates with home/road winning percentages.
The following interview occurred during last month’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time in which many Americans get away from the daily grind. Not so for former Razorback Ronnie Brewer, whose Chicago Bulls played in Memphis.
MEMPHIS – Everything is rushed for this interview.
The reporters jam into the visitors’ locker room and mass around one Chicago Bull, then another, seeking soundbites. The players look bone tired, but dutifully dispense post-game Pez into the recorders in front of them.
This is NBA life circa 2012, on the heels of a lockout that has forced 66 games to be played with four months. That’s a game every 1.8 days, alongside a slog of hotel check-ins, arena commutes and flights in and out of cities from Portland to Miami.
And sometimes the cards fall just wrong, producing hellacious stretches like the one the Bulls are in now. Seven games in nine days, folks. Even hey-day Jordan might have had trouble getting up
Some updated notes [on 11/30] from the last day of the Rumble on the Ridge basketball tournament, a 3-day affair in Forrest City, Ark:
Pel sighting! He’s no longer stalking the sidelines as Arkansas’ head basketball coach, but that doesn’t mean John Pelphrey can’t keep visiting gyms around the state as a Florida assistant. As long as there is elite talent around to scout in high schools across the South, you had better believe Big Red will be there. Billy Donovan wouldn’t expect any less.
Below is a photo of Pel sitting in the same vicinity as the Sylvan Hills basketball team. Something tells me he wasn’t going to so much as sneak a peak in their direction, though.
Goodwin was a headliner in the tournament, although his team lost 60-89 to the Southwind Jaguars in the final. He was little hampered by the injury toward the end of the below clip, but came back just a few minutes later.
Archie has already signed with Kentucky, and was rocking a UK hat postgame. He said the injury was a “little painful, but nothing too bad to where I couldn’t play.” Asked if he had any message for UK fans, he said: “Tell them I love them … I’m gonna come up there and cause havoc.”
Goodwin’s signed, but Southwind’s junior Johnathan Williams III is still very much on the radar of many big programs. Here’s a clip of what he can do:
Johnathan Williams III (6-7, 208, ESPN’s 17th best player in ℅ 2013)
Below are video highlights from the Razorback basketball’s Primetime at the Palace preseason intrasquad scrimmage. I have more video from the event (Hot Shot contest, dunk contest and scrimmage highlights) on my YouTube channel.
1. Freshman Devonta Abron is pretty agile, and isn’t shy about showing it off. It’ll be interesting to see if he tries to do a different dance during each pregame introduction, assuming he’s a starter. He’ll have to play pretty well for the coaches to let him do this during the regular season!
Below is the expanded video from an earlier post.