Chris Bahn: Writing Off Anderson, Razorbacks Seems Premature

So here we ware, another NCAA Tournament without Arkansas. And here we are, another NIT without the Razorbacks.

March Sadness is back for a program that was part of the college basketball elite for significant portions of the 1980s and 1990s.

Wish now that you’d appreciated those final four NCAA Tournament appearances from Nolan Richardson between 1997-2001 a little more don’t you? Since Richardson’s last tournament team the Razorbacks have been to three NCAA Tournaments. And, if you’re scoring at home, they have made zero NIT appearances these past 12 seasons.

Had Arkansas broken that streak this year in Mike Anderson’s second season, it would be so much easier to claim progress was being made. Instead, many are once again left adopting a team to root for in the Big Dance and some are left with questions about where this once-proud program is headed.

Second-guessing of the Anderson hire has already begun in some circles.

But if a postseason invitation is the only measure of progress you’re using, that seems awfully lazy, shortsighted or something else entirely.

A lot of the criticisms right now sound like those Richardson faced in his first two seasons at Arkansas. I’m going to choose to believe the motivation fueling some of the critics isn’t the same as it was when Richardson was fearlessly breaking down barriers.

Regardless of the reasons some don’t see progress, they’re missing out on improvements made since Anderson was hired in April 2011.

Hopes were high that Anderson could replicate what he did at Alabama-Birmingham. He took the Blazers to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in his second season and was in the NIT quarterfinals in year one. Never did UAB win fewer than 21 games.

This rebuild appears to be more of what Anderson did at Missouri. He went 34-28 his first two seasons and was 13-19 in the Big 12. In fact, the Tigers took — at least record-wise — a step back from his first to second years, dropping from 18 wins to 16 and sixth in the Big 12 to 10th.

Anderson’s breakthrough season at Missouri came in year three as the Tigers went 31-17 and 12-4 in the Big 12, finishing third. That season resulted in an Elite Eight appearance and the team made the next two NCAA Tournaments, going 23-11 each season.

Because of what he did at both stops, Anderson deserves the benefit of the doubt here. He’s got a track record of success, even beyond his 17 seasons as an assistant to Richardson. Sure, the program found a link to its past in Anderson. But as I once wrote: “if the Anderson hire appeals to you only because he was at the school for 17 years, then it’s time to put away the Starter jacket, Ace of Base CD and VHS tapes. You’ve missed out on a lot that Anderson has accomplished since leaving.”

Arkansas has improved since Anderson arrived. This year’s team tied a school record with 17 wins at Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks went undefeated at home in conference play for the first time since 1998.

How quickly folks seem to have forgotten 2009-10 when Arkansas lost consecutive home games to Morgan State, East Tennessee State and South Alabama.

That wasn’t even close to the lowest point of the John Pelphrey era. By December of his final season, Pelphrey had suspended 16 of 32 players who suited up for him. Not a single member of the 2008 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 15 nationally, stuck around to finish his eligibility.

There was zero direction off the floor, which carried over onto the court.

Yes, Arkansas has missed the postseason these last two years just like they did under Pelphrey. And, yes, the Razorbacks have extended the first-round SEC Tournament exit streak to five years.

That is where the similarities end between Anderson and his predecessor.

This isn’t written to suggest things are perfect. It is OK to have concerns. Among mine:

*Doc Harper was spot-on when he wrote earlier this week that the 2012-13 team underachieved. Anderson doesn’t get to avoid blame here, but the team’s three most gifted players (guard BJ Young and forwards Marshawn Powell and Hunter Mickelson – especially Mickelson) disappeared far too often.

*It is concerning there isn’t really a point guard on the team, something that is critical to success in this system (look at Paul Pressey at Missouri or Corey Beck at Arkansas). Perhaps Anderson can land a surprise in the late recruiting period.

*Arkansas’ road struggles are baffling. And this was a concern for Anderson’s team at Missouri. As the NCAA and NIT committees showed, they are putting a premium on winning on the road. Solving these issues are a must to make the postseason.

Nobody, especially Anderson, is happy about sitting home this time of year. It is OK to have questions or concerns. But writing off Anderson after two seasons really seems premature.

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