Jim Harris: Mike Anderson Has Hogs Almost Where He Needs Them


Mike Anderson with team 2013

The addition of guards Anton Beard from North Little Rock and Nick Babb of Arlington, Texas — who both signed national letters of intent with Arkansas this week — should bring Mike Anderson’s program to a level of talent at all five positions that can have the Razorbacks competing with the best in the Southeastern Conference every night. Babb is a long 6-foot-4 with defensive abilities and a shot from the wing. Beard, pushing 6-feet, has a soft, beautiful left-handed shooting stroke for the outside with an ability to battle bigger players in the paint a la the great Corey Beck from the Hogs’ 1992-93-94-95 run.

Yes, they and 6-8 forward Trey Thompson of Forrest City, who also signed this week, can’t join the Hogs until next season.

How nice it would be to take at least the guards with them to Maui next week against the toughest competition the Razorbacks will face until SEC play begins.

It’s not been an easy rebuild for a once nationally prominent basketball program, with which today’s one-and-done prep stars from outside Arkansas are barely familiar. With the exception of the period in the late 1980s-early ’90s, when Nolan Richardson tapped into the many relationships he’d built through junior college and as head coach at Tulsa to land a handful of superstars from outside these borders, the Razorbacks success on the basketball court — and this goes for football, too — coincided with upswings in the in-state talent pool.

The Triplets — Ron Brewer, Sidney Moncrief and Marvin Delph — were products of a surge in in-state talent in the early to mid-1970s, and they carried Eddie Sutton and Arkansas to the university’s first actual Final Four in 1978 (the UA is listed as having participated in Final Fours in the 1940s, though there was no actual “Final Four” as it’s known now and only 8 teams total were in those NCAA Tournaments).

Corliss Williamson, who graduated from Russellville High in 1992, is still the most decorated Arkansas prep basketball player, ranking anywhere from the No. 1 to the No. 3 player in the country depending on what service you followed. And, in case you’ve forgotten, he got the better of one of the other No. 1s, Jason Kidd out of California, in a King Cotton Classic matchup in Pine Bluff. Williamson, of course, led Arkansas to its only basketball national championship in 1994.

Now, we see an Arkansas roster highlighted by another rare in-state McDonald’s All-American, lean 6-foot-10 freshman Bobby Portis from Little Rock Hall, and the powerful presence of junior Alandise Harris, a 6-foot-6 Little Rock Central product and a transfer from Houston.

Beard is the first of what will be a parade of highly recruited prep stars who are destined to come out of North Little Rock — Beard transferred during the off-season from Little Rock Parkview. Plus, the eyes of recruiters from coast-to-coast are already on Malik Monk, the 6-3 sophomore guard who transferred from East Poinsett County High in Lepanto to Bentonville High during the summer.

Anderson doesn’t have to be reminded that his long-term success at Arkansas rests on keeping those Charging Wildcats coming to Fayetteville after graduation and also eventually signing Monk.

With the 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances that should follow beginning next season with a complete roster finally assembled of his players, Anderson will have an easier time getting the attention of difference-makers beyond Arkansas’ borders.

For now, patience is still called for. Arkansas fans, as evidenced by the reaction to the recent developments in football though they were forecast by anyone paying attention in the past two years, aren’t long on patience.

They’ve waited through three coaching changes in the past 11 years for some sign that the Razorbacks could rejoin the usual suspects in the discussion about the NCAA championship. Right now, the four names heard the most are the ones who made up last week’s terrific doubleheader in Chicago: Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and Duke. And of course there is Louisville, the defending national champion. Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin all expect to be in the talk, as does Florida from the SEC. Gonzaga and Baylor are the other favorite flavors of this decade, perhaps like Arkansas was in the 1990s and UNLV and Oklahoma was before that.

Can anyone over 30 imagine thinking in March 1996 that Arkansas’ loss to Marcus Camby and UMass would be the last appearance in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen? This was in the midst of a run of three Final Fours, two championship game appearances, a title, and six Sweet Sixteens in seven years.

It took John Pelphrey’s first team, with Stan Heath’s players, to manage Arkansas’ only NCAA victory so far in the 21st century.

Realistically, odds aren’t great for this Razorback team to make the NCAA Tournament, let alone win a game, unless they manage 12 or more wins in a league whose reputation is already taking more lumps with this season barely a week old. Kentucky will have it together with all its future NBA talent before too long, and Florida has enough talent to contend, as should Tennessee. After that, the fight for fourth is wide open. Will the SEC get a fourth bid this year after only three a year ago?

Maui should tell us something about Arkansas, though we’ll have a much better idea about the team and its future prospects — this year and next as we move into February. For this year, Anderson has to make due with his walk-on guards, plus a trio of Pelphrey recruits (two seniors and junior Ky Madden) in the backcourt, all who have been unpredictable to this point, and the only guard Anderson has actually recruited since arriving at Arkansas, Anthlon Bell. The word from Fayetteville is Bell’s defense is much improved with a year in the system, and he has an improved and more confident shooting stroke.

With the exception of trips into Auburn the past three years — where Arkansas isn’t scheduled to go this year in the SEC’s 18-game slate — the Razorbacks had drawn a big 0-fer on the road under Pel and now Anderson for two years. Shooting and good defense without fouling is what travels. With Portis, Harris and Bell plus a few others who have the occasional streaky tendency, the Hogs might manage the shooting part on a few nights. The NCAA’s new rules on use of hands in defense might force Anderson’s teams to actually play a sounder defense now with better fundamentals, which would help on the road and not send home teams on a parade to the foul line.

In the meantime, know that solid backcourt ability is on the way next season to blend with a stronger, longer front line.

Arkansas plays the Sun Belt Conference’s Louisiana-Lafayette Friday night in Fayetteville in a matchup set up by the Maui Invitational folks. Monday night, Coach Larry Brown brings his improved SMU Mustangs to Fayetteville. It’s Brown’s first trip back for a game in Fayetteville since his 1986-87 Kansas team with Danny Manning was blown out by Richardson’s second Razorback squad. Then it’s off to Hawaii.

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