Since taking over the Arkansas program four years ago, Mike Anderson's Razorback basketball teams have consistently improved year by year, culminating in what many consider the best season in 20 years last season. The program's academic reports were so bad when he took over that the Hogs were losing scholarships, but now they're at an all time high. Attendance at Bud Walton Arena has consistently gone up. Until yesterday, there had been no significant off-the-court behavior issues.
To a casual observer, it might seem like the Arkansas basketball program has been rebuilt and future raggedy rides should be few and far between. However, it's hard to look at the program and not come to the conclusion that Mike Anderson is facing a critical juncture in his time leading this program.
This is not to say his job is in jeopardy. Far from it. He deserves and will get the opportunity to keep this thing afloat. But he's got a big problem.
The 2016 season was expected to be a step back when Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls left early for the NBA, but losing Ted Kapita, the supposed jewel of the spring signing period, Nick Babb to transfer, and the possibility of losing Anton Beard and Jacorey Williams to forgery arrests, adds up to disaster for this program. It's reminiscent of Anderson's first season when he had so few players on his roster he had to seek help from Brandon Mitchell in the football program.
It should be noted that we don't yet know the ultimate fates of Beard and Williams, but it's perilous at best.
That being said, even if the arrests didn't happen, Anderson would still be facing a difficult uphill battle just with the loss of Kapita. Without him, Arkansas' frontcourt features several players who have barely played meaningful minutes in their Razorback careers, leaving Hog fans with nothing but having to hope someone from that group makes a substantial leap in development before this winter.
The main reason for this is that Anderson's recruiting has so far failed to bring in any real stars since signing Portis. Arkansas signed four players in the 2014 class and brought in Keaton Miles from West Virginia, but only Beard made significant contributions last season, and now Beard's in a position where his return is questionable. Arkansas knew they had two openings for the 2015 class but ended up with five spots and air-balled the spring signing period. Everybody is excited for Jimmy Whitt, but with the four open spots in the spring, Kapita failed to qualify, Dustin Thomas was ineligible for this season after transferring and his future is also in doubt for allegedly being part of the forgery deal, Willy Kouassi couldn't score at Kennesaw State and likely won't do much more than rebound and block shots here, and the last spot simply wasn't even filled.
If you're keeping score, that's 10 open spots for new players over the last two years if you count the Keaton Miles transfer, and the only player to be genuinely excited about at this point is Whitt. That doesn't mean some of those players won't improve or turn out to be better than expected, but they'll have to prove it on the court.
That's the main reason Arkansas is in this position, and the main reason it's difficult not to think Anderson's fate at Arkansas won't be directly tied to the success of the 2016 recruiting class.
With the loss of Kapita, the Razorbacks have seven open scholarships for the 2016 group, and if Beard and Thomas don't make it back, that will be nine (!) spots. That's essentially an entirely new roster that Arkansas will have to live or die with for multiple seasons, and it must include some stars. Role players who "fit the system" won't be enough. This is the group that will define the program for the next 2-4 years.
The 2016 class has long been viewed as important if for no other reason than it's the class Malik Monk could headline, and while Monk would be a fantastic addition to the program (and to Anderson's credit, every indication suggests he's recruiting him as hard as possible), it can't be all about him. He alone won't magically transform the program. Arkansas just enjoyed two seasons of Portis and all of Qualls' SportsCenter moments, and the program is still in its current state. The Razorbacks must sign players like Monk and continue to sign quality players along with him.
Arkansas already has a commitment from juco All-American Daryl Macon, and he's widely considered to be a good one. There are several other good players the program is targeting and seem to have a reasonable shot at landing.
As a coach in his 5th year leading a program, Anderson and his staff own whatever happens to the program at this point. When things are going well, they deserve credit and praise. When things go badly, they deserve criticism. But the only way to get the program back to where it was in March and beyond is to bring in better players, and a lot of them because there are a lot of openings.
All Razorback fans want Anderson to succeed. What happens in the coming months will likely determine whether or not he will.