Anderson, Arkansas reveling in NCAA tourney return
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Mike Anderson wouldn't say the words ''NCAA Tournament'' throughout the entirety of the season, right up until the Razorbacks were selected to their first NCAA berth since 2008.
It was a moment of relief for both Anderson - who talked about the ''NCAA Tournament'' in his first sentence at a Monday news conference - and a state desperate to reclaim its status among college basketball's power brokers.
Once-mighty Arkansas (26-8) hasn't returned to that level quite yet, but it has increased its win total in each of the four seasons under Anderson.
The Razorbacks, who lost in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game to No. 1 Kentucky, open tournament play as a No. 5 seed against 12th-seeded Wofford (28-6) on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Florida.
The berth is the first for Arkansas after a brutal six-year absence for a school accustomed to tournament success under Anderson's mentor, former coach Nolan Richardson. It was the longest without an NCAA appearance for the Razorbacks since an 18-year stretch that ended in former coach Eddie Sutton's second season in 1977.
''There's a great history, tradition, and so having an opportunity to come back here, obviously you want to take it to another level,'' Anderson said. ''I know coach Richardson set that standard, coach Eddie Sutton, and my aspirations were to take it to another level. And so I think this is just the start of it.''
Anderson, who was an assistant coach at Arkansas for 17 years under Richardson, returned to Fayetteville in 2011. He left a Missouri program he had established as an NCAA Tournament regular for the place he called ''home,'' despite the basketball team's woes following Richardson's firing late in the 2002 season.
Arkansas won 18 games in Anderson's first season and 19 a year later. The Razorbacks were 22-12 last season an narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament after a late-two-game skid, eventually losing in the second round of the NIT.
Anderson credited last season's experience with helping this year's team reach the NCAA Tournament, saying he received a congratulatory text message from former player Coty Clarke - a key member of that team.
''I thought that team last year, it was almost,'' Anderson said. ''And these guys this year took almost and made it happen.''
Arkansas' 26 wins are the most for the school since the 1994-95 season, when the 1994 national champion reached the second of back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship games, losing to UCLA.
Led by SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks secured their spot in this year's tournament with a late-season seven-game winning streak. They also have victories over tournament teams SMU, Dayton, Mississippi and LSU as well as a pair of victories over Georgia.
Regardless of how far Arkansas advances in the tournament, Anderson said he finally has the program back to where it belongs.
That's a position where making the NCAA Tournament isn't a question each season, but rather how far the Razorbacks will advance.
''You have to go through some things to get where you want to go,'' Anderson said. ''We are at a stage now where we talk about dancing, but we want to do more than just get there.''