Jim Harris: Mike Anderson Keeps Assuring Fans the Razorbacks Are ‘Closer’


Mike Anderson and year three magic

Arkansas’ basketball season has already reached that point of “ifs” and “we’re almost there,” those same kinds of proclamations that typically came from the ever-enthusiastic Coach Houston Nutt when he was coaching the football Razorbacks. Give basketball coach Mike Anderson credit for possessing the same upbeat approach when everyone else — read: the fans — want to jump ship, but it’s going to take more than optimism to right the vessel.

The paid Razorback spokesmen on radio were assuring what few listeners were still tuned in after the Hogs had blown another road game, this one at Tennessee on Wednesday, that had they played with the same competitive zeal at Georgia and Texas A&M that they showed in Knoxville, those road games would have ended up in the win column.

But, Arkansas didn’t play that way in a blowout loss in Aggieland and a overtime heartbreaker in Athens, and yet there’s never the explanation why it didn’t bring its “A” game. No matter what level of determination the Hogs carry on the road, it hasn’t been good enough under Anderson in three years, other than two trips into Auburn — which shows how woeful the Tigers’ basketball program has been. Arkansas, now 2-22 under Anderson on the road, doesn’t play at Auburn this season, but the Hogs do get to feast on the Tigers this Saturday at home in Bud Walton Arena, where Auburn’s current 13-game SEC road losing streak started last year. Auburn has lost 21 of its past 22 SEC games overall.

Anderson, after the Tennessee game, offered, “I’ve been saying we’re getting close. Tonight, we got closer.”

Amusingly, the responses we saw to that on social media were exactly to be expected: Closer to what? Mediocrity? That’s what being .500 in the Southeastern Conference would be, mediocre at best. The SEC has two teams of some national note, Florida and Kentucky, then nine or 10 wishy-washy teams whose nonconference work wasn’t stellar, and then a couple of awful programs. Arkansas, at 1-4 in the league and fortunate by a Michael Qualls rebound slam dunk at the end of overtime against Kentucky to not be 0-5, is just above that pair of dismal bottom feeders.

Amazingly, a couple of national writers who attempt to forecast the NCAA Tournament field as the season goes along, Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi, haven’t given up on Arkansas as of late this week. CBS’s Palm actually has the Razorbacks making the 68-team field, while ESPN’s Lunardi ranks Arkansas as one of the “last four out” in his bracket. Everything will no doubt hinge on the results of this remaining run of road foes: LSU, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Alabama. Care to guess from where a win, or two, might come?

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What’s still helping Arkansas, besides the thrilling upset of Kentucky and its McDonald’s All-America team, is its early home-court wins over SMU and Clemson (which recently pounded an inconsistent Duke by 13 at home) and a win in Maui over Big Ten upstart Minnesota. The Gophers have done enough to this point to figure in the NCAA field if the tournament was set today, and Arkansas’ other opponents in Maui, California and Gonzaga, also are viewed as tournament teams. Cal, currently second in the Pac-12, and Gonzaga, which has been hit by injuries since Maui, whipped the Hogs by double-digits, but those rate as “good” losses, if there is such a thing.

No matter how tough it is to win on the road in the SEC, with its inconsistent if not down-right shady officiating that seems to favor the home team (29-15 in fouls at Knoxville? Seriously, with both teams playing similar aggressive styles?), those Hog losses at College Station and Athens were not “good.”

All they did was leave a patient fan base with more questions about Mike Anderson as a coach. Yes, he proved himself to some extent at Alabama-Birmingham in taking the Blazers to the NCAA Tournament, and he guided Missouri in his third season in Columbia, Mo., to the Elite Eight.

When Arkansas was sitting 11-2 before hitting the SEC stretch, Anderson was happily explaining that the success was what he expected in his third year, with mostly his type of players on the Razorback roster. The Texas A&M result signaled to fans that nothing was different, however, and the lack of a structured offense in tight game situations late against Georgia and Tennessee indicated that Anderson still wasn’t able to reverse his road woes.

Whether Arkansas is “closer” or not, the fact is, the Hogs need A closer and need to learn how to close. So far, it doesn’t appear Anderson has been able to establish enough discipline in the Hogs’ play to be successful in crunch time.

Arkansas made 3 field goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation and all of the 5-minute overtime against Georgia. In the last seven minutes at Tennessee, again, the Hogs failed to score a bucket, losing what had been an 8-point lead at one point in the second half. At Georgia, the Hogs led by 7 before the shocking drought. Think about that again: 3 made baskets in essentially a full half of basketball. That sounds like elementary school basketball.

It would be easy to blame the problems on Arkansas’ lack of elite guards, or not true point guard, with smallish senior walkons Fred Gulley and Kikko Haydar having to play the bulk of the minutes at one of the guard positions. Yet at Tennessee, in a combined 42 minutes Arkansas got a perfect 8-for-8 shooting and 21 points, two steals and just one turnover from the pair. At Georgia, Gulley scored eight points in a row to stake Arkansas to a 41-34 lead in the second half.

The Hogs are getting way more than should be expected from those two guards.

However, outside of his swooping slam dunk against Kentucky, Arkansas has gotten little from the 6-4 Qualls since SEC play began. His athleticism destroyed the little competition offered by the likes of High Point and Tennessee-Martin, but his lack of true basketball skills and a consistent release on his shot seem to have been exposed by SEC players. But not only that, his recent slump has affected Qualls’ typically upbeat attitude, from the looks of his body language at Knoxville.

Alandise Harris, the 6-foot-5 transfer from Houston who sat out last season, is pressing and forcing his offense in his first SEC season as a Razorback — it’s also harder for Harris to use his strengths against taller SEC players than it was against the undersized foes in most of the nonconference schedule (recall, though, how lengthy California just whipped the Hogs inside). Harris needs to regain that confidence that he displayed when he was the best player on the floor two years ago in Houston’s win over Arkansas in Verizon Arena. That night, Harris was out to prove he had been overlooked by the previous coaching staff. Now, his shoulders seem to be weighed down in an effort to be the team’s difference maker.

Freshman Bobby Portis appeared to have been bullied away from where he can consistently score by A&M’s, Georgia’s and Tennessee’s front lines . He needs a strong off-season in the weight room, where with more strength he can take some of the pressure off his mid-range jumper by being able to take defenders to the basket a la Kevin Garnett, his idol.

Guard Anthlon Bell, supposedly a “pure” shooter when he was signed by Anderson two years ago, can barely buy a bucket. Instead, he makes one wonder why Anderson and his staff didn’t recruit Pulaski Academy product Dusty Hannahs, a 6-4 sophomore guard who is shooting 47 percent on 3-pointers at Texas Tech and who hit 7 of 7 3-pointers on Wednesday night at West Virginia.

Another guard, pint-sized Dee Wagner doesn’t get off the bench. Yet, Anderson and his staff also passed on perhaps a point-guard answer in North Little Rock grad Dayshawn Watkins, who helped lead Bobby Portis, Moses Kingsley and the Arkansas Wings to an under-17 national championship. Watkins, originally headed to UAB, is sitting out a year at a junior college. He waited on Arkansas for the longest, then signed with Leonard Hamilton and Florida State where he’ll play next year.

The positives, besides the surge by Fred Gulley, has been the work and energy brought from off the bench by 6-8 Jacorey Williams — though he should limit his outside shot attempts — and perhaps a renewed belief in his role by senior guard Mardracus Wade. Starting forward Coty Clarke had two solid road games in a row but also was beset by critical late mistakes, as were the rest of his teammates. Junior starting guard Ky Madden has been terrific at times since early December, but his play under pressure has been questionable, best illustrated by his decision to dribble off 20-plus seconds of the clock to fire up a contested 3-pointer in a tie game at the end of regulation against Georgia. That wasn’t Anderson’s call; he’s pretty much at the mercy of his players’ performances — but these are also most of his players.

And speaking of the 6-10 Kingsley, why does Anderson continue to play him 12 or fewer minutes a game? Anderson offered the possibility before the Tennessee game that Kingsley and Portis might play on the court at the same time, but it didn’t happen. In his 12 minutes off the bench Wednesday, the big man made both his field goal attempts and had two steals, four rebounds and three blocked shots.

Many of Anderson’s promises haven’t been realized yet. He assures us his team is “closer.” But they’re still chalking up L’s on the road.

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