Five years ago, Alltel Arena (now Verizon Arena) in North Little Rock was playing host to the NCAA men’s first- and second-round tournament games, and the Arkansas Razorbacks were playing in those same rounds in Raleigh, N.C.
It seems only fitting that five years later, Verizon Arena is playing host now to a major gymnastics event — the Southeastern Conference championships — while the Razorback basketball continues to languish in the ultra-mediocrity of failing to make even the National Invitation Tournament.
During that tournament in Raleigh, when Sonny Weems and Arkansas were dispatching Indiana in the first round, TV commentators Jim Nance and Clarke Kellogg noting that the Hogs had “disappeared from the national scene” since the glory days of Final Fours and the national championship of 1994.
If the Razorbacks had disappeared up to that point — and that was in a run of three straight tournament appearances, two with Stan Heath and the final one in 2008 with John Pelphrey — what do we term it now?
The Razorback relevance has vanished.
On reputation alone, Arkansas could have lost 13 of 14 road games and still make the NIT field back in the day, but no more. And the Hogs managed to be mediocre in a league that, as we’re seeing this week, has suffered a significant fall-off in power during the past decade.
If Razorback basketball is no longer relevant in the national basketball conversation, then what does that mean for the UA’s recruiting hopes nationally?
Mike Anderson has been on the trail for talent this week looking for guards at the junior college level in Hutchinson, Kan. They’ve been hot after high school guard talent in Illinois. Anderson has added enough ability on the front line to make Arkansas relevant again, but he’s well aware the Hogs won’t beat anyone consistently without greatly improving the guard play and the perimeter shooting.
For long before Anderson arrived, Arkansas hasn’t traveled well. It’s been mostly a decade-long problem. Shooters can travel, so to speak. Good, sound defense and rebounding travel. Those areas need the most attention moving into next season.
Nolan Richardson, making a brief appearance with a broadcast crew in Fayetteville late in the year, said his advice to Anderson was that he couldn’t change everything in one season and needed to focus on a specific area. Anderson rebuilt Arkansas’ home-court edge where the Hogs surrendered nothing in SEC play. They ended up pulling out some games in Bud Walton Arena — Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia come to mind — that likely would have gone the other way in past seasons.
Arkansas once was a destination spot for national McDonald All-Americans such as Kareem Reid, Darnell Robinson and Derek Hood, when things were rolling under Nolan.
Now, Anderson has to make sure the local stars stay home, and Little Rock’s Bobby Portis is the first in-state McD-AA to have done just that.
The good news for Anderson is that Arkansas is in the midst of another 20-year cycle of producing fantastic basketball talent. We saw such a period in the early to mid-1970s, which produced players who carried the Hogs to the 1978 Final Four. It repeated itself in the early to mid-1990s with the likes of Corliss Williamson, the 1994 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and Derek Fisher, who rose from UALR to NBA fame, plus many others who weren’t Hogs but starred elsewhere.
It’s happening again with Portis, with Antone Beard in the junior class and with an amazing array of talent in the 9th- and 10th-grade levels around the state. Check out the YouTube video recently posted on ninth-grader Malik Monk of East Poinsett County and prepare to be amazed.
Arkansas was never the program where it could “select” college stars from around the country, but when the Hogs were a national player they could attract a difference-maker here and there. It’s difficult to get in the door of those players these days. They weren’t born when Arkansas was a regular NCAA Tournament participant. It’s been 17 years since the Razorbacks made a Sweet Sixteen.
And it’s been five years since they appeared in the tournament and won a first-round game. In the second-round, they were run out of the arena by North Carolina with mostly Tar Heel fans on hand in Raleigh.
Twenty-three years ago, Richardson’s Razorbacks were running UNC out of an arena in Dallas with a partisan Arkansas crowd cheering them on. Anderson was there as an assistant. He knows the task at hand and what the fans demand. It will require continued building, just as it did for Eddie Sutton after year 2 and Richardson after his second year.
In the meantime, perhaps Hog fans should relax and take in some excellent gymnastics on Saturday at Verizon Arena. The Razorbacks are relevant in that sport.