Jim Harris: Mike Anderson Has the Razorback Freight Train Moving in High Gear


Mike Anderson has razorback freight train moving

It’s amazing what a couple of baskets going your way instead of the other way, followed by a blast-from-the-past demolition of a reeling conference foe, can do for the soul of the Arkansas Razorback fan.

All is darned-near well in Razorback land for a change. People who haven’t attended an SEC Tournament since the Hogs last won a first-round game (2008, for anyone counting) are looking for the best deals to Atlanta. There’s suddenly hope that Selection Sunday will mean something again in Hog Nation.

Think about it: If an ill-advised off-balanced three-pointer had fallen at the buzzer in Athens, Ga., or if a driving basket at Columbia, Mo., had dropped through, just imagine the place? Make both ends of a one-and-one in the second league game of the season at home against Florida, and who knows?

Really, Mike Anderson’s Hogs have only laid two eggs on the road this season, and one of those was partly self-inflicted by a couple of players whose attitudes needed adjusting by a weekend staying at home. Inexplicable still, other than blaming the preparation of opening Southeastern Conference play on the road with a run of Christmas creampuffs at home, is that repeat humiliation at College Station, Texas, in early January.

If Mike Anderson doesn’t have Arkansas right on the same schedule that his mentor Nolan Richardson had in the 1980s, he’s awfully close.

Thinking back to year 3 of Nolan, after two seasons of inconsistent play and fans wondering if Frank Broyles had erred in replacing Eddie Sutton with the man in polka dots and cowboy boots. that third season got off to as woeful a start as any — a blowout loss AT Tulsa, the school that had produced Nolan in the first place. It’s pretty much forgotten now. But it was not much uglier than the Hogs’ SEC-opening trip to Texas A&M in Anderson’s third year.

Turns out, neither drubbing foretold what would eventually happen.

Arkansas wasn’t as bad as that season-opening loss at Tulsa indicated in 1987-88, eventually pulling together to compete for the SEC championship and earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, and the Hogs weren’t repeating last year when they lost by the same margin as last year to the Aggies back in January. It’s just that, when you see the same result over and over and the losses to even mediocre teams pile up, it’s hard to imagine that somehow it will magically change. When it does change with this style of basketball, the Nolan style now adapted to Mike’s own way and liking, it really is magical.

All of a sudden, no one is wondering when Anderson will get all his own players and get better guards. How many more players does he need to destroy Ole Miss any worse than Wednesday’s amazing rout?

No one is wondering anymore via message boards or Twitter if Anderson and his staff even teach free throw shooting. Remember that one? Has 16-for-16 at Kentucky, 26 of 36 at home vs. Georgia and 19 of 20 at home vs. Ole Miss affirmed anything? We’d say so.

Arkansas’s style of halfcourt defense and the way the players react to make it work isn’t going to make the Razorbacks well-suited for dominating the defensive boards. The fact that only two players now have enough size for it just adds to the predicament. But we should know that and accept that now — it’s not all about rebounding in this system. But Anderson also knows that some rebounding is essential against the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU; look how the Hogs have reacted in those games, particularly in the late going at Lexington against the SEC’s best rebounders.

Just live with the fact that for what Arkansas gains over everyone else with its style, it will lose a little something in the process. But the eventual result in all this is still to chalk up another W at the end, no matter what the stat line says.

Assists matter, and they’re way up. Shooting matters, and on Wednesday night the Hogs looked like they were replaying the 1993-94 Missouri game all over again. Steals are key — again, it may not get any better than what was on display against Andy Kennedy’s squad in Bud Walton Arena. He was left mumbling about the freight train that hit his Rebels by the count of 110-80.

This team has been able to scratch out a win while losing the turnover battle at Kentucky. Somewhere else, such as at the free throw line that night, is where the Hogs will make up their shortcomings when they are playing like they have in their past nine games.

Across the board, Hog players have significantly improved their games over last year and the beginning of the season. Coty Clarke is storming to one of those unforgettable senior seasons like we saw from the likes of unsung Lenzie Howell in 1990. Ky Madden, Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls appear to be the most talented Hogs but have all learned over the past month that they don’t have to have a big night in the scoring column for the team to succeed. Unheralded guards Fred Gulley and Kikko Haydar have never played better.

Mardracus Wade is now a Mike Anderson-type guard in his last year and should be a shoo-in on the all-defensive team. Everyone but Anderson — and maybe even Mike himself at times — had doubted Anthlon Bell’s contributions as a shooting guard. We also saw Anderson individually turn Arlyn Bowers into a shooter back in the Nolan heyday with constant drills outside of regular practice. It should have figured it was simply a matter of time before Bell turned it around.

When everybody was reaching for sharp objects back in January, Anderson continued to keep the faith, that the Razorbacks “were close” even after dropping to 1-4 and then 2-6. Yes, we wondered how he could maintain such a positive stance when it didn’t appear the Hogs had a closer one on the floor to finish a game.

Well, folks, that’s why Mike Anderson is making the big bucks. He knew the conference schedule was its toughest on the front end, if only he could keep the loose ends from completely fraying early. His players eventually bought in. They’re still the same players they were in January, when Hog Nation was crying that Anderson needed more talent for his system. But Anderson was building a team, in which we all know the whole totals more than the sum of the parts.

They might stumble in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, and they could fall into a crazy logjam at 10-8 with half the conference before the weekend is over. They could run out of steam in Atlanta during the conference tournament next week. The NCAA selection committee could snub them, even if they do everything but win the SEC tourney.

No matter. The rickety ride has turned as enjoyable as it’s been in close to 13 years. The direction now appears to be the right one for Razorback basketball.

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