On April 3, 1995, Arkansas made its second consecutive appearance in the national championship game, having won the title the year before. The Razorbacks lost that night to UCLA, but the program was clearly on a roll under head coach Nolan Richardson, compiling a 52-9 record over two seasons. At Richardson's side throughout that run was Mike Anderson, who served as an assistant in Fayetteville from 1985 to 2001. (When Richardson was fired in 2001-02, Anderson was tapped to finish out the season as interim head coach.) Under Richardson the Hogs thrived by playing an up-tempo pressing style they labeled "40 minutes of hell."
It took nine years and stops at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri, but Anderson has finally returned to Arkansas. Not only does the new head coach link the present-day Hogs with the most illustrious chapter in the program's past, he also plays a style that he learned from Richardson. Those two facts go a long way toward explaining why Anderson was chosen last March to replace John Pelphrey.
That being said, don't expect the Razorbacks to make an appearance in the 2012 national title game. Arkansas hasn't finished above .500 in the SEC since 2008, and even with a new coach and a highly touted recruiting class the Hogs could have a hard time ending that streak this year. Here's what to watch for in Year 1 of the Anderson Era.
The Hogs will be young.
Anderson and his staff deserve credit for holding on to a very good incoming freshman class that Pelphrey put together, one featuring point guard B.J. Young, big man Hunter Mickelson, and wing Ky Madden. Those freshmen should find minutes available more or less right away. Marshawn Powell and Julysses Nobles return from last year's roster, but they are the veteran exceptions to the rule. Delvon Johnson and Marcus Britt graduated, and since the end of last season Jeff Peterson, Glenn Bryant, and, most importantly, Rotnei Clarke have all transferred out of the program. Clarke's decision in particular has occasioned much discussion, with good reason.
Rotnei Clarke isn't walking through that door.
The 6-0 Clarke was the Razorbacks' leading scorer last year. He didn't transfer immediately when Anderson was hired, and in fact he attended the first team workouts after the new coach arrived. Soon afterward, however, Clarke asked to transfer. "It wasn't just the workouts," Clarke has said of his decision. "I just felt like it wasn't the right situation for me. It wasn't just the style of play." I was glad to hear Clarke say that Anderson's style wasn't an issue, because the coach's teams at Missouri always had room for three-point specialists like Clarke. (Matt Lawrence comes to mind.) Be that as it may, Clarke is gone. He'll sit out the season and intends to play for Butler in 2012-13.
If you want to see a dramatic stylistic shift, watch Arkansas this year.
Last year the Razorbacks played at a pace that was slightly slower than the SEC average, and they didn't force many turnovers. Conversely Missouri averaged a very fast 71 possessions per 40 minutes in Big 12 play while forcing their conference opponents to commit turnovers on 23 percent of their possessions. Forcing more turnovers would certainly help where it matters most in Fayetteville. The Hogs last year were average on offense but very permissive on defense. Anderson will try to change that by playing a faster style and using a deeper bench. One word of warning is in order, however. Last year the Razorbacks were the worst defensive rebounding team in the SEC, pulling down just 62 percent of their conference opponents' misses. That may not change under Anderson. His Missouri teams also tended to be weak on the defensive glass.
This will be a tough year to improve your record in the SEC.
Anderson picked a bad time to be a rookie in this conference. After a few seasons in which the SEC was perceived as being down, the league came back to life last year, putting two teams into the Elite Eight (and coming within an OT period of accounting for half of the Final Four). This year the SEC should be even stronger, with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Alabama all looking primed for big seasons. Gone are the days when a team could finish atop the SEC and still be viewed with suspicion nationally. Any team that comes out of this league in 2012 with an impressive record is likely to be accorded the proper respect. The flip side of that coin is that wins are going to be tough to come by, especially for a program that fired its previous coach just last March.
After going 16-32 the past three years in league play, Arkansas made a change and brought in a former assistant who's been to the Elite Eight as a head coach (Missouri in 2009). It's what any program in the same situation would have done, and it may well pay dividends before long. But this season Razorback fans should be content with the excitement that comes from watching talented young stars play a fast pace. Anderson is building for a future that he hopes will measure up to the Hogs' past.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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