Do Arkansas fans still trust Mike Anderson?
Ultimately, that's the key issue with how fans feel about a coach. Even if good things happen, do fans have faith their coach can take advantage of it and turn those good things into wins? When coaches have the faith of their fan base, they can get away with more things. When that faith is gone, every criticism - both major issues and petty complaints - is amplified by the cynicism. Some problems are even made up.
Today marks the 5th anniversary of the much-celebrated announcement that Mike Anderson was coming home to Arkansas, and after a strange season resulting in no NCAA Tournament for the 4th time in those five seasons, plenty of people are questioning how far Anderson will be able to take the Hogs.
That one stat is all some people care about. One NCAA Tournament in five seasons. I can't imagine that's what anybody, including Jeff Long and Anderson himself, expected when Anderson was hired with what was at the time one of the 15 biggest contracts for a basketball coach in the country. Friend of the site Chris Bahn, who was the editor of ArkansasSports360.com (RIP) at the time of Anderson's hire, noted that the hire was for more than nostalgia. Anderson had taken UAB and Missouri to six NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons, and Missouri's program was in similar, if not worse, disarray than Arkansas was when John Pelphrey was fired.
Missouri was rife with academic, NCAA and discipline problems when Anderson took over for Quin Snyder at Missouri in 2006-07. Snyder was cited for 17 NCAA violations, and the Tigers were 28-33 the two years prior to Anderson.
Within three years they were in the Elite Eight. Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden said 12 of 15 seniors had graduated under Anderson, who used the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" to become the fastest Missouri coach to 100 victories.
AL.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky (whom I've been plenty critical of for other issues) called the hire a "slam dunk" and said:
Let's be honest. Arkansas isn't hiring him to go to the Sweet 16, as he did in 2004 with UAB, or even the Elite Eight, as he did with Missouri in 2009.
As an Arkansas assistant, Anderson was a vital part of three teams that went to the Final Four in a six-year period, two teams that reached consecutive national championship games and one team that won it all.
As the head coach, he'll be expected to re-create those glory days. The bar will be much higher for him than it was at UAB or Missouri, but his opportunity to clear it should be much better. Basketball matters at Arkansas in a way it does at no other SEC school outside of Kentucky. Anderson knows that because he helped make it that way.
So it's pretty difficult to argue that Anderson has met expectations or that he somehow has the program "on schedule". Because of this, it seems there are plenty of fans who've given up hope that Anderson can rebuild the program the way we all envisioned five years ago. It's hard to blame them. So many bad things have happened in the 14 years since Nolan Richardson went out guns blazing that some of the reserves of hope are running dry.
It wouldn't be crazy for a coach to be fired after posting a record like Anderson has over the last five years. Arkansas fired Stan Heath after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament's second round after Year 5 despite much of that team coming back the next season (which John Pelphrey coached to a second round game after beating Indiana). Heath's firing came under a different athletic director in a different situation (I believe there's no way Long would have fired Heath at the time, but that's another conversation). But, like it or not, fairly or unfairly, Anderson's not a normal coach for Arkansas. Anderson was Jeff Long's personal choice as well as the overwhelming choice of the fans and donors five years ago, both for what he meant to the Arkansas glory days as well for his subsequent success at other schools, and and the school has invested a lot in him. He's not going away easily.
Anderson's job is safe for the moment. However, the complaints will surely carry on. Even if Arkansas is good next year, as they were last year, faith won't be fully restored until people feel the program can win consistently. So let's look at some of these complaints and their validity.
There's no question recruiting under Anderson has been maddeningly inconsistent. There have been good classes and bad. The biggest reason the 2016 season was so unproductive is that the 2014 and 2015 classes have not produced any true star players yet. In college basketball, since any player can leave for the pros after one good year, it's imperative to recruit quality classes each year and that simply hasn't happened.
The highest-rated recruits in 2014 and 15 were Anton Beard and Jimmy Whitt. Beard was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team a year ago, but involvement in an off-season forgery incident cost him half of his sophomore season and arguably his starting spot. Jimmy Whitt had an up-and-down freshman season and is now considering transferring. I've written at length about the disastrous spring 2015 signing period. If Beard can rebound and Trey Thompson continues to improve, the 2014 class will be remembered more fondly, but as of now, it's not terribly impressive.
However, it should be noted that 2013 was great (Bobby Portis, Moses Kingsley) and 2012 should be viewed better than it has been. While there were no instant impact stars in the 2012 group, Michael Qualls, Coty Clarke, and Anthlon Bell all had nice runs at Arkansas. Clarke has dipped his toes in the NBA and Qualls is a fan favorite who might still have a chance at the NBA when his ACL tear is healed. Bell finished his career as a top-30 all-time scorer at Arkansas.
Further, Arkansas already has a promising set of commitments in the next two classes that could be a better back-to-back group than 2012 & 13. The Razorbacks have five 4-star recruits committed in the 2016 and '17 classes, plus a commitment in the 2019 class from Justice Hill, who is expected to be a very good player.
It doesn't appear that another 2014 & '15 recruiting disappointment is on the horizon anytime soon, and it had better not. Arkansas was unprepared for the losses of Qualls, Portis, and Alandise Harris after the 2015 season, and that's the result of recruiting.
I think this issue is largely overblown. Yes, the Hogs failed to sign Malik Monk, KeVaughn Allen, and Archie Goodwin. I don't blame Anderson at all for not signing Monk. By every indication, he did everything he could. Unfortunately, Arkansas and Kentucky simply offer different things right now. Twenty years ago that wasn't the case, but it is now (not to mention other outside influences). I believe Goodwin had one foot out the door by the time Anderson was hired. Allen is arguably the biggest miss as he'll be in college for more than one season, but he never seemed seriously interested as far as I could tell. That doesn't absolve Anderson and his staff for failing to make him more interested, however.
Anderson and his staff should be credited with bringing in Arkansas residents Portis, Beard (who was initially committed to Missouri), Daryl Macon, Trey Thompson, Daniel Gafford, Darious Hall, and Hill in 2019. He also brought home Fred Gulley, Harris, and Dusty Hannahs as transfers.
Some criticize Anderson for not offering or making a stronger effort to land other in-state players who weren't rated as highly as Monk, Allen, and Goodwin. I don't worry much about that. Few of those players are/are projected to be impact players. Some of it's a timing issue. Perhaps Arkansas makes a stronger run at Peyton Willis if they knew earlier that Monk was going to Kentucky. But they didn't. And fans would have been just as upset if they stopped recruiting Monk to settle for Willis. Either way, I don't think this is one of the issues causing the program to be stuck in mediocrity.
"In Year 5..."
Yes, Anderson's program suffered a setback in Year 5. As if the program is supposed to literally get better every year until it reaches the early 90s peak and never lets go. That's simply not realistic in college basketball in 2016. Rosters are too fluid. There isn't a program in America that doesn't suffer from down years. Duke wasn't even ranked for a good portion of the year. Kentucky and Michigan State both failed to reach the Sweet 16. Ohio State and Florida was the national championship game within the last decade, and both met again this year in the NIT.
Basketball players have more power through options than players in football or baseball. Under rules for those sports, Portis plays for the Razorbacks in 2016 instead of the Bulls. Basketball players rarely redshirt as freshmen, so they feel more willing to transfer because they won't lose a season of playing time.
Anderson isn't immune to suffering these setbacks, but this year isn't the biggest reason some have lost faith. I think it's more the result of Years 2 and 3. Jeff Long recently said on the radio that he gives Anderson a pass for those years because of the Pelphrey mess, but that's a hard case to make. In Year 2, Arkansas won major games at home against #2 Florida, a good Missouri team, an NCAA-bound Oklahoma team, and also Kentucky. However, they followed up all of those big wins with severely disappointing road losses to bad teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and LSU. They were never able to build on anything and only won one road game all year, costing them an NIT bid. In Year 3, the Hogs were included in every NCAA Tournament projection heading into the last game of the regular season, but dropped a giant egg in a blowout loss to a mediocre Alabama team, and followed that up with another disappointing loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.
Those seasons are far more disappointing to me than Year 5. This year was supposed to be Anderson's rock bottom, but the Hogs still finished 9-9, granted in a mediocre-at-best, in the SEC. Not that this should be the standard for comparison, but Pelphrey failed to go .500 in his last three years at Arkansas. If this was supposed to be Anderson's worst year, he still did quite a bit better than his first season in Fayetteville when the Hogs went 6-10. What happened in Year 5 is all in how you choose to look at it. It can be an overachievement or a disappointment, or even both.
"Doesn't run an offense"
This complaint is backwards. While Arkansas' offense has certainly been ugly in the program's worst games, such as this year's Mississippi State game in Starkville, offense has usually not been the biggest problem. In Anderson's five years, the Hogs have finished in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency four times, peaking at #3 in 2015.
Defense has been a much more consistent problem. The Hogs average over five seasons has fallen in the bottom half of the league. The biggest frustration with this is that the "Fastest 40" concept, like its "40 Minutes of Hell" superhero alter-ego, is much more associated with defense than offense. Fans envision constant full-court harassment for 40 minutes, and it largely just hasn't materialized. There have been nights when it's been great, but it has been anything but a staple of this program over five seasons. The team even talked this year about struggling to "take the defense on the road" with them. It just hasn't been there, and that's a big disappointment.
There's no doubt there was an enthusiasm erosion this year. It shouldn't be much of a surprise. Once Portis and Qualls announced they were leaving last April, expectations for this year's team nosedived. The team, despite showing significant improvement from some players, struggled to stay above .500 in non-conference play, so some fans never fully invested. It was evident in team discussion on social media, message boards, and web traffic - but not so much attendance.
Attendance, frequently listed as a main reason for firing Pelphrey (in addition to dismal results on the court - much worse than Anderson's) is still significantly higher now than it was by Pelphrey's last year - and even higher than Anderson's first year when enthusiasm for him and his style of play was theoretically at its highest. For the season that just ended - a season for which there could not have been less hype - the Hogs still averaged about 3,000 more tickets sold than they averaged in 2011. In fact, this year was actually the second-highest average in the Anderson era behind only the 2015 season. So while some fans might have lost interest in the Fastest 40, fans haven't yet made that clear with their wallets the way they did with Pelphrey.
The question is what has to happen to bring back the fans who checked out this year. Is it as simple as putting a more consistent winner on the floor next season? Does Anderson need to prove himself by making multiple NCAA Tournaments over consecutive seasons? We'll see. There's no doubt that failing to make the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years, which followed up three mostly disastrous seasons under Pelphrey, has taken its toll on the fan base. It will take quite a bit of success to bring those people out.
Regardless of what's already happened, the more important question is how far do people believe Anderson can take this program. The point of this article is not to condemn Anderson nor defend him, but paint a clearer picture of his record than is often portrayed. I'll even say this: I won't argue too much with people who've lost faith. While Anderson's record before he came to Arkansas is stellar, his record in Fayetteville doesn't show evidence of much consistent success. I wish it did, but it doesn't. There are several great wins. He has a decent record against the top 25, even better percentage-wise than his colleague on the football field who now makes about double the salary Anderson does. But Anderson has also suffered some terrible defeats. Some of them have been historically awful. Not as many as his predecessor, but some.
That inconsistency has been the most common theme of the last five years. One year that qualifies as a good season, one true bubble season that ended in the NIT, two fringe NIT bubble seasons, and starting out with a season in which they weren't under any serious consideration for anything by the end of February.
The positive consistency is that over the first four seasons, Arkansas' record did improve every year. Several players have developed into much better players than they were when they came in. But Anderson still needs more wins.
Can he bring them in? I actually argue there's a strong case to be made that he can. I have full confidence - as much confidence as I've had in a team since going into the 2015 season - that next year will be a major rebound if Kingsley returns. I argue the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are evidence that better things are ahead. How much better? I don't know. I don't know that Anderson will take Arkansas to the Final Four. Or even the Sweet 16. It's been so long since Arkansas has been, it's hard to imagine anybody doing that at this point. But I do still believe Anderson can lead Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament more frequently.
I don't know where Jeff Long stands on the NCAA Tournament being the be-all end-all for Anderson next season that many fans feel it should be. He might agree. He might not. I know Anderson has the roster set up - if Kingsley returns - to where just making the Tournament next year isn't something I'm really concerned about. I expect them to be there. I'll be significantly disappointed if they're not - assuming there are no significant injuries or suspensions, obviously.
If Kingsley returns for his senior season, and most seem to think he will, he's a legit SEC Player of the Year candidate and Dusty Hannahs has proven he can be a top 10 scorer in the league. Add the nation's top juco player at point guard, another juco All-American at shooting guard, a major improvement on the front line to go along with Moses (no matter how good or bad Arlando Cook, Adrio Bailey, and whoever else turn out to be, they just have to be better than Keaton Miles and Willy Kouassi. The bar isn't set high.), that's a solid roster. We can also expect some players to make jumps in their development such as - hopefully - Jimmy Whitt, Anton Beard, and/or Trey Thompson. There should be excitement for next season, and hopefully there will be.
And if the team is good next season, can it be sustained? That was the issue with the 2015 team. But, the 2016 and '17 recruiting classes suggest they can sustain it much better than they did this year.
All of it adds up to the point that Anderson has no more excuses. He's spent any political capital he ever had, and may be in overdraft. Things can still happen that are outside of his control, such as a likely senior starter having to be kicked off the team for his part in forgery and other off the court problems, but patience is thin - if it exists at all.
40 minutes go by fast when you're winning, but when watching losses, those 40 minutes don't go by fast. It's agonizingly, painfully slow. It's up to Anderson to make those 40 minutes fast and fun again, and it can't wait any longer.