Nowadays, any Joe Q. Fan can find the historic progression of any team’s effective field goal percentage, or what player has the most defensive win shares for the Hogs’ next opponent. And if these data are available to the public, you can only imagine the resources available to the coaches themselves.
One can also imagine Nolan Richardson staring down the number crunchers behind the likes of kenpom.com, baskeball-reference.com and statsheet.com, and slapping them upside their heads.
As the former Arkansas head basketball coach sees it, algorithms and spreadsheets aren’t needed to measure the gap separating college basketball’s winners from its pretenders. Nope, the difference is measured in two primary ways: talent and ferocity.
He took Arkansas to its early to mid 1990s glory years with a mix of both. In time, his protege Mike Anderson will return the Hogs to national contention his own way, he said Monday at the Downtown Tip Off Club in North Little Rock. “In order to get there you have to have the kind of players to get there with,” Richardson told the lunch crowd, adding recruiting elite talent is more important than elite coaching ability.
He pointed to Kentucky, which won a national championship last season with five starters who all ended up drafted into the NBA. “It don’t take no hell of a coaching job when you’ve got five guys who end up in the NBA. And I get a kick out of the fans who say ‘Oh, what a great job.’ What great job? You’ve got five [NBA players] going and five coming – what do you expect? You can’t contend with that, you’ve got a problem coming.”
Richardson knows Arkansas isn’t at Kentucky’s level, talent-wise, but its cupboard isn’t exactly barren. B.J. Young is a likely lottery pick and a healthy Marshawn Powell could find a Kawhi Leonard-like niche in the NBA. In a couple of years, a more confident and aggressive Hunter Mickelson has the size and skills to be a first-rounder.
Arkansas must to learn to compensate for any talent or size disadvantages through sheer want-to. “You’ve got to play hard,” Richardson said. “That’s the most difficult thing to do in this day and age, is to get you to play 40 minutes as hard as you can.”
That hasn’t been a problem in Fayetteville, where the Hogs have been superb since Anderson’s arrival. The enduring problem has been the road, where Anderson’s Hogs are 1-11 (not counting neutral site results). Based on last week’s 51-69 loss to Texas A&M, subpar effort on the road isn’t a problem soon disappearing.
This issue also plagued the first and last years of Richardson’s reign, but in the glorious middle he was able to get his players to walk a mental balancing beam between believing they were always better than their opponents yet never good enough. And be angry about it.
“If you’ve got five nice guys, you’re gonna finish last,” Richardson said. “You’ve got to have some of those guys that are half crazy, who when they walk out, they say ‘Hey, you guys are in trouble tonight. Because I’m coming to town,” he said.
“That’s the edge, and to me that’s how I was raised. That I was the underdog all the time, and it was up to me to not be the underdog, and I had to fight every single day. That’s how I coached and that’s how I tried to preach to my kids – to believe that they can take on the persona of their coach.”
Mike doesn’t breathe fire like Nolan. He doesn’t have the same harsh upbringing to use as fuel; he isn’t wired that way. But Mike doesn’t have to roll exactly like Nolan to win. Similarly, Roy Williams wasn’t expected to act like Dean Smith after taking over North Carolina. Tom Izzo wasn’t expected to be a Jud Heathcote clone.
For Anderson to fulfill his potential as Arkansas’ coach, he must figure out a way to level the playing field against teams with superior talent and size – at least until he gets superior talent himself. Richardson did this by getting his guys to play with a chip on their shoulder – especially on the road – and it seems only logical for Anderson to figure out a way to do this too.
Anderson isn’t a naturally angry person, so what exactly this chip will be isn’t yet clear.
But whatever method Anderson finds to stoke the fires and keep them lit, it won’t include the same tactics Richardson used on his best teams.
Richardson said of the current Razorbacks: “You can’t expect to be seeing a team that’s doing the same things that we did all the time, because I’m half-ass crazy and I know that.”