Arkansas coach Mike Anderson enters his fourth year on the job looking for his first NCAA tournament bid. Can he lead the Razorbacks over the top in the SEC and nationally?
LAS VEGAS – Mike Anderson can do the math. He's 54 and entering his fourth year as head coach at his alma mater. Unlike his previous stops at UAB and Missouri, Anderson has not brought the Razorbacks to the NCAA tournament in any of his first three seasons. Next season, he knows, is a big one. “We’ve finally got all our guys in, players who fit what I want to do,” he said. “This is the year we have to take it to the next level, and we feel we have the personnel to do that.”
As we spoke, Anderson kept an eye on his most important guy – Bobby Portis, a wiry, bouncy, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward. Portis was one of two dozen or so college players invited to work out at the LeBron James Skills Academy. A former McDonald’s All-American from Little Rock, Portis had a terrific freshman season (12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game), which ended with him being named second team All-SEC. Players typically improve more between their freshman and sophomore seasons of college than at any time in their careers. If Portis is able to make that kind of leap, then it is going to be awfully tough to keep Arkansas out of the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Anderson told me that he started recruiting Portis “as soon as I got the job. He was a sophomore in high school.” Keeping that kind of in-state talent at home is critical, but Anderson’s specialty is developing lesser-known players to fit his end-to-end up-tempo system, which he likes to call “the fastest 40 minutes in basketball.” However, a player cannot improve unless he’s willing to put in the work, and in this regard Portis has been impressive. Because he grew late, he has had trouble with his lower body and core strength, so Portis has spent much of the offseason trying to bulk up. “He has a motor that doesn’t stop,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be great.”
Arkansas lost six seniors and another full-time starter who transferred, but six of its top seven scorers will be back. Senior guard Rashad Madden led the Razorbacks in points (12.7 per game) and assists (2.8), and 6-6 junior guard Michael Qualls averaged 11.6 ppg and provided the season’s biggest highlight, a putback dunk which beat Kentucky at home last January. Junior guard Anthlon Bell is another returning part-time starter, and sophomore center Moses Kingsley was seventh in the SEC in blocked shots even though he averaged fewer than 12 minutes per game.
The biggest question will be at point guard. Madden logged most of the reps at that position last season, but that was by necessity. He’s more comfortable playing off the ball. Anderson hopes to play him at the two spot if a viable alternative emerges. The most likely candidates are Jabril Durham, a 6-1 transfer from Seminole State College in Texas, and 6-1 freshman Anton Beard, a local kid whom Anderson described as “a tough, rugged, in-your-face guard that fits the fastest 40 minutes in basketball.”
All in all, Anderson will have the deepest rotation he’s had at Arkansas, which will help him implement the culture he needs to put this program over the top. He told me that for the most part, the entire team has been spending its time in Fayetteville working out, attending summer school classes, and bonding. “When our teams have been really good in the past, the competition in practice has been great,” he said. “I think we’re looking at that with this particular team.”
Finally, the big question: Can Arkansas consistently win on the road in the SEC? Going into last season, the Razorbacks had won just two league road games under Anderson, and both were at Auburn. That was rectified – barely. The Razorbacks beat a pretty bad Vanderbilt team by a single bucket, and they needed overtime to edge Kentucky by four points at Rupp Arena. Anderson pointed out to me that several of Arkansas’ losses were close (by 2 points at home to Florida; by 1 point at Missouri), but the same could be said for many of their wins. And at the end of the season, they got embarrassed at Alabama by 25 points and then couldn’t beat South Carolina at home. Those two losses cost them a spot in the NCAA tournament. “We have to become a better finishing team,” he conceded. “That’s why I say leadership is going to be important – true, authentic leadership.”
Anderson is a Razorback through and through, but goodwill only lasts so long. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Anderson's job is in jeopardy, but when you’re making more than $2 million a year, the school, and the fans, have a right to expect results. Anderson’s team has the potential to deliver next season, but if it doesn’t, the chirping around him will only grow louder. “Every coach has pressure. That’s just what we do,” he said. “Patience is the key. I don’t want to build a program that’s a one- or two-year wonder. This is the same thing I did at UAB and Missouri, so the blueprint is there. You just to have to believe in what you’re doing.”