Yesterday, Nolan Richardson discussed the progress of Arkansas basketball with sports radio host Bo Mattingly. The praise for Richardson protege Mike Anderson came fast and effusive, with Richardson taking his usual jabs at lucrative programs like Kentucky which regularly tidal wave opponents over with year after year of one-and-dones. Programs like Arkansas, without similar stockpiles of blue-chippers, don’t have that luxury.
The Wildcats (and other blue blood programs) have always had more talent, on the whole, than their main SEC challengers but UK head coach John Calipari’s success has helped widen the gap since Richardson’s early-to-mid 1990s heyday. In many ways, this makes Mike Anderson’s ultimate mission of regular Final Four appearances harder than Richardson’s ever was.
But this shouldn’t affect expectations in the least, according to Richardson.
“I tell [Anderson] this “You’re not Nolan. And that’s fine. I want you to be way better than Nolan’s ever been,” Richardson said on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly. “Because I had chips on my shoulder, and they weren’t chips by the time I finished. It was a mountain.”
A mountain metaphor here is apt. Richardson’s 16-year-head coaching career at Arkansas pretty cleanly resembled one:
Incline: From 1985 through 1989, his teams steadily won more games and went deeper into the postseason each season.
Peak: From 1989 through 1995, all his teams but one went to the Sweet Sixteen or deeper. Four teams won 30 or more games. Richardson came away with an Elite Eight appearance, three Final Four appearances and a national championship.
Decline: From 1995 through 2002, total wins fluctuated year by year but never topped 24 wins in a season. After 1996, he never again made it to the Sweet Sixteen. After 1999, he never got deeper than the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It will be a tall task for Mike Anderson to match Richardson’s peak years, let alone surpass them.
Anderson’s first six years as the Razorbacks’ head coach have far more resembled square dancing in the rolling hills of the Ozarks than the first six years of Richardson’s career. Previous to the Hogs’ most recent seven-game stretch, so much of Anderson’s tenure had seemed like alternating rounds of two steps forward, one step back and two steps back, one step forward. A lot of that has to do with the early departures of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls (Richardson’s late 1980s/early 1990s future NBA players stayed) as well as the process of trying to meld in six new players this season.
Despite the inconsistency, we now have a full six regular seasons to examine Anderson’s progress. The sheer numbers from these last three are eye-opening. As I write about more in OnlyInArk.com, Anderson has the program winning at a clip higher than any three-year run since Richardson’s national runner-up and Sweet Sixteen years.
Below are the total records for Anderson’s Razorbacks over the last three regular and postseasons. SEC records are in parentheses:
2016-17: 23-8 (12-6)
2015-16: 16-16 (9-9)
2014-15: 27-9 (13-5)
Overall winning %: 66.7%
The last time Arkansas produced a winning percentage over a three-year span at 66.7% or higher was in 1994-1997:
1996-97: 18-14 (8-8)
1995-96: 20-13 (9-7)
1994-95: 32-7 (12-4)
Overall winning %: 67.3%
After these, the next-best run comes squarely in the Pat Bradley-Kareem Reid-Derek Hood era:
The overall winning % of this run was 65.66%
Such big-picture numbers indicate Mike Anderson has his recent teams playing at a higher level than the “best” of Richardson’s era of decline (or incline, for that matter). Granted, such a deed isn’t nearly as sexy as matching any of the peak year accomplishments. And yes, the 1996-97 through 1998-99 teams twice went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, while we don’t yet know how deep this team will go.
But regardless of how the Hogs do in the postseason starting tonight in an SEC Tournament game vs. Ole Miss by which Arkansas is favored by 4.5 points, Anderson deserves praise for this kind of accomplishment.
Nolan Richardson thinks so, too.
Like so many Arkansas fans, he believes Anderson should have received more consideration of the 2017 SEC Coach of the Year honor that went to Florida’s Matt White. “I won the conference my first year [in the SEC], and I wasn’t coach of the year,” Richardson told Bo Mattingly. “I had teams win national championships [sic] in the SEC, and I was never named ‘coach of the year.’ So you have got to be twice as good as the guy who’s in front of you.”
He adds: “That’s how I see Mike. He’s gonna have to do some extraordinary things to get the recognition that he deserves.”
In 2014, Evin Demirel covered Nolan Richardson’s induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That and other stories will be featured in his forthcoming book African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks and other Forgotten Stories.