It’s been 25 years since the last time Arkansas made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Mike Huckabee was in his first term as governor of Arkansas after Guy Tucker stepped down. Arkansas’ retail giant, Wal-Mart entered China for the first time. And, Arkansas led Patrick Bradley, Sunday Adebayo and Kareem Reid this roster had the looks of an upstart but talented enough be a force in the SEC for a long time.
Close losses early on to national powers Michigan State and Arizona showed promise that this young team could make it far. The Razorbacks would make the tournament and win their first two games against 5-seed Penn State and 4-seed Marquette. Their Cinderella run would fall short when they would lose to 1-seed UMass 79-63.
Many fans that are younger than 31 or 32 have faint memories or none at all of the Golden Age of Arkansas Basketball. A lot of fans, myself included, endured through the challenging times to bask in the jubilance with our more mature fans during the celebration of Sunday’s victory over Texas Tech to reach the Sweet 16. Yes, it was very sweet.
Was it worth the wait? Yes it was!
The year last year under Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson was a 14-15 record but was poised to make another run. How?! Arkansas had future NBA superstar Andre Iguadala signed. However, when Richardson was fired he asked for his release of scholarship and ended up signing with Arizona instead. That team could’ve been special.
Arkansas suffered the seasons after Richardson’s firing when the Razorbacks hired Stan Heath away from Kent State. (If Chancellor John White kept his nose out of the athletic department’s business, Frank Broyles would have hired Bill Self instead). There were tough times and an empty Bud Walton as apathy set in among the Arkansas fan base but it would get better.
Under Stan Heath
2002-03: 9-19 (4-12 SEC)
2003-04: 12-16 (4-12 SEC)
2004-05: 18-12 (6-10 SEC)
2005-06: 22-10 (10-6 SEC)
2006-07: 21-14 (7-9 SEC)
Obviously, the record wasn’t really ideal but Arkansas really underachieved during the first era post-Nolan. The first season was understandable but the next four could have absolutely gone better. With talented guards Ronnie Brewer, Jonathan Modica, Eric Ferguson and Olu Famutimi and Vincent Hunter in the post Arkansas could have done better, albeit young.
In the third season under Heath, the Hogs looked like they were returning to form with an impressive 13-1 start with the only loss being to top five Illinois. They would go cold down the stretch winning only five games and severely underperforming through SEC play.
In the final run with Brewer, Arkansas would finally look like a NCAA Tournament team. Heath brought in size with Steven Hill, Darian Townes, Charles Thomas and Cyrus McGowan to go along with Eric Ferguson and Jonathan Modica. Arkansas picked up a win over Kansas in the Maui Invitational and in Dallas against Texas Tech. Things got stagnant with a 5-6 record in conference but won five in a row to close out the regular season including two victories over top 10 team in Florida and Tennessee. Arkansas went on to win their first round game in the SEC Tournament over Georgia but lose to eventual national champion Florida in the second round. With such a hot close to the regular season the Hogs were seeded eighth to face nine seed Bucknell. The game wasn’t even as close as the score indicated but the most talented team post-Nolan completely underachieved and Heath’s seat had become very warm.
The final season under Heath had three future NBA players and other solid college players. Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverley were the star additions to a solid returning core of Hill, Townes and Thomas. Transfer Gary Ervin from Mississippi State and freshmen Mike Washington and Stefan Welsh were solid additions. The Hogs were looking like a plug and play squad that would go deep in the NCAA’s. However, the team was up and down finishing 21-14 (7-9 SEC) with a first round exit against USC.
Broyles fired Heath after that loss but it didn’t get better honestly. Chancellor White and Broyles had hired very successful Creighton coach Dana Altman. After an awkward Hog Call and then saying “my friends in Creighton wouldn’t like that” he would resign less than 24 hours later and return to the Blue Jays. Who knows actually what happened. Was the Razorback program in shambles? We’re Broyles and White too hands on? Who knows but they eventually brought in a search firm only to hire *****SOUTH ALABAMA*****
head coach, John Pelphrey, who wasn’t horrible with the Jaguars but not who fans really wanted or deserved.
Under John Pelphrey
2007-08: 23-12 (9-7 SEC)
2008-09: 14-16 (2-14 SEC)
2009-10: 14-18 (7-9 SEC)
2010-11: 18-13 (7-9 SEC)
Arkansas started the season in the top 25 with Weems, Beverley and Townes leading the way. The Hogs reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the first year under Coach Pel with wins over ranked Vanderbilt and Tennessee teams. The Hogs faced off against an Indiana team with future NBA star Eric Gordon leading the Hoosiers. With a chance for their first Sweet 16 since 1996, Arkansas lost to eventual national champions North Carolina 108-77.
The next season Arkansas would start 12-1 with two huge wins against Oklahoma and Texas leading into SEC play. A young squad with eight newcomers including Courtney Fortson and Roteni Clarke they looked very promising and another run to the NCAA Tournament within reach. Arkansas ended up going an embarrassing 2-14 during conference play and the program was in trouble.
The third under Pelphrey wasn’t much better as early suspensions spoiled what could have been an overall improved season. Instead, they did improve in the SEC winning seven games but Pelphrey’s seat continued to get hotter.
The final season under Pelphrey looked to be one that would return his team to the NCAA Tournament. At 18-10 (7-6 SEC), Arkansas was on the bubble but lost their last final three games to close the season at 18-13.
Former Arkansas assistant, Mike Anderson was having a successful career at Missouri leading them to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament in his third season. He took the Tigers back to the tournament his final two seasons advancing to the second round one time.
Under Mike Anderson
2011-12: 18-14 (6-10)
2012-13: 19-13 (10-8)
2013-14: 22-12 (10-8)
2014-15: 27-9 (13-5)
2015-16: 16-16 (9-9)
2016-17: 26-10 (12-6)
2017-18: 23-12 (10-8)
2018-19: 18-16 (8-10)
The Razorbacks had plenty of success under Anderson winning a lot games under his watch. He had a solid career at Arkansas but he couldn’t figure out a way to advance to the Sweet 16. Twice they faced North Carolina in the Round of 32 but lost both of those games. Those two teams were arguably the two most talented teams under Anderson but couldn’t get over the hump unfortunately.
Upsets over #2 Florida, ranked Michigan, a sweep of Kentucky in 2014 including Michael Qualls dunk at the buzzer, Daryl Macon and Jalen Barford jumpstarting the program with Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, and a multitude of highlight jams by Daniel Gafford highlighted a memorable time on The Hill.
The downward turn of the Anderson tenure was the no-show tournament loss to Butler in 2018. The Razorbacks never recovered, lost a lot of talent and had very little experience in freshman in his final season. Although talented, the Hogs lost 11 games by eight points or less. Anderson did well but didn’t do enough to stay on.
After the firing of Anderson, Arkansas went out and hired the best mid-major coach and hottest commodity there was out there in Nevada’s Eric Musselman. His use of social media, previous experience marketing his semi-pro/G-League games gave the Arkansas basketball program a renewed energy. A reinvigorated fan base showed up to games and made Bud Walton Arena a force to be recokoned with again.
With this Sweet-16 appearance it gives hardcore, diehard fans born in the late 80’s and early 90’s reason to believe again. This is something many of us knew was a sleeping giant in the college basketball world. I look forward to the hoop and hollering the lies ahead on Saturday night. This will feel different but I’m glad we will finally find out what it truly felt like to be a Razorback fan in the 80’s and 90’s. Go hogs!