Summer Buzz: Arkansas Razorbacks

August, 10, 2011
8/10/11
11:41
AM ET
Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Arkansas got its man.

[+] EnlargeMike Anderson
Steve Dykes/US PresswireNew Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is a throwback to the Nolan Richardson years.
That kind of phrasing often is used when new hires are revealed to the public, and it can mean anything from "wow, good hire" to "well, at least it's over." In Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long's case, though, it means exactly what it says. No school with a vacant coaching position this spring did better than Arkansas; former Missouri coach Mike Anderson -- Nolan Richardon's right-hand man throughout the Razorback glory days -- was exactly what this program needed on and off the court.

On the court, Anderson religiously runs Richardson's famed "40 Minutes of Hell" system, a pressing, fast-breaking style that Arkansas fans will immediately remember from Richardon's hugely successful run in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. (Arkansas, as you might remember, went to the Final Four in 1990, won the national title in 1994 and returned to the national championship game in 1995.)

Off the court, Anderson represents the healing process Arkansas fans and their former coach Nolan Richardson -- who was dismissed in 2002 amid claims that he was being mistreated because he was black -- so desperately seemed to need. Anderson is a prodigal throwback to the Richardson years, a longtime disciple who set out from Fayetteville to forge his own path at UAB and Missouri, and who now returns as his own impressive coaching entity.

Arkansas fans might be the most underrated hoops heads in the country. Or maybe, after a decade of post-Richardson malaise, they're just the most dormant. However you want to look at it, they now have every reason -- strategic and symbolic -- to make the once-raucous Bud Walton Arena rock again. Does it get any better than that?

Actually, yes: The Razorbacks could win a few basketball games. Bridging the past with the future is nice, and it gives guys like me an easy way to ruminate on the state of fandom and all that, but symbolism doesn't put points on the board. Players do. Fortunately for Anderson, he just so happens to have a few.

Before Pelphrey was fired this spring, he did his outgoing program a solid, landing the No. 9-ranked recruiting haul in 2011. It was a desperately needed infusion of talent, and though it came too late for Pelphrey -- Long decided to dispense with his coach despite the recruits, always a tricky proposition -- it came at the perfect time for Anderson, who managed to keep all of its players in place despite the coaching transition. (One of those players, small forward prospect Aaron Ross, could not qualify academically to play in 2011-12 thanks to a shaky ACT score. Instead, he'll attend prep school and hopes to join the Hogs in 2012-13.)

Those players include the No. 4-ranked point guard in the class of 2011, B.J. Young, as well as No. 11-ranked shooting guard Ky Madden and No. 8-ranked power forward Hunter Mickleson. Given the talent drain in Fayetteville in recent seasons -- which was accelerated by guard Rotnei Clarke's decision to transfer to Butler and guard Jeff Peterson's defection to Florida State in June -- all three players are likely to start and/or play big minutes for Anderson immediately.

That's because there really isn't all that much talent left over. That's what you'd expect after an 18-13 season and a coaching change, of course, but still. Junior guard Julysses Nobles has one of the best names in college hoops; he also has the distinction of being the only Razorbacks' backcourt starter that didn't transfer this spring. He struggled in 2011, posting a 91.9 offensive rating thanks to meager shooting and an ugly turnover rate of 25.4. Arkansas' most frequently used player, Marshawn Powell, was a slightly above-average scorer in terms of efficiency, but his conversion ability left plenty of room for improvement in what will be his third year at the school in 2011-12.

No, Anderson will be relying on those touted freshmen right away. They're recruits, so there's no Ken Pomeroy data here, nor can we scout them using Synergy Sports data. What we do know is that Anderson will play fast, pressing basketball, that he'll rely on his guards to do the heavy lifting, and that those guards are likely to be Young and Madden. Of course, there are concerns to be had about any freshman entering Anderson's system. Can said freshman adjust to the intensity 40 Minutes of Hell requires? Can he master such the quirky system? Will he be able to handle the non-stop effort over 30-plus games?

Again, we don't know. But former Razorback Ronnie Brewer seems to think so. So that's good.

In all seriousness, we can project how Anderson's first Arkansas team will play. Uptempo, pressing, all that. But we can't come anywhere close to an accurate projection of how well they'll play. That will have much to do with the development of Nobles and Powell, but it will be determined by how well Young and Madden and Mickelson adjust to life under their new coach and his unusual system. At Missouri, Anderson's teams often seemed to outperform expectations, based on the talent available, so maybe a similar expectation applies here. Or maybe it'll take a year or two before this machine really starts humming.

Either way, Arkansas fans can feel optimistic again. Its school made a pitch-perfect hire. That hire retained talent the team so desperately needs. At some point, the Razorbacks will be back.

If it happens in 2011-12, great. If it doesn't, oh well. Bottom line? Hoops fans in Fayetteville have reason to cheer again. After all, they got their man.
Off the court, Anderson represents the healing process Arkansas fans and their former coach -- who was dismissed in 2002 amid claims that he was being mistreated because he was black -- so desperately seemed to need.

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