Rome was not built in a day, nor will Arkansas basketball be rebuilt within a matter of months.
As much as that may be a chilling certainty, Mike Anderson seems completely unwilling to accept it. If your stance toward his appointment as head coach in March 2011 was indifferent, lukewarm or otherwise unenthused, take stock of things now and reassess, please.
The Razorbacks go about seven or eight deep after injuries and defections ravaged them from summer forward. They accordingly get virtually no contributions from upperclassmen and are ostensibly being "led" by guys who barely remember who Bill Clinton is. This team engenders very little fear in the opponent's perimeter defense because, well, it shoots poorly. By the way, these Hogs don't stack up well in the paint against most upper-echelon teams.
It is frankly a terrible prescription for thriving in the Southeastern Conference, which is a league predicated on raw athleticism as much as any actual basketball gifts.
Arkansas's status as a basketball mecca was fleeting. It's really never been accurate to depict the Razorbacks as a national titan, even in the peak years of 1990-95. Richardson was a trailblazing sort who capitalized on an era where college players weren't being siphoned into the NBA at a breakneck rate, and where his style caught lesser coaches flat-footed. That just doesn't happen as much now, and the dilution of the broad talent pool has made the phrase "mid-major" a fixture rather than an anomaly. All of this is said simply to underscore the fact that Anderson's role is often overstated: overzealous fans would claim he is here to restore glory to Razorback basketball. I don't buy it — he's here to create fresh success. We don't expect Bobby Petrino to recapture the magic of 1964, do we? In many ways, college basketball has changed as much in 18 years as college football has in the last 48.
All things considered, then, the Hogs' respectable 14-5 start is remarkable. The win against a ranked and extremely well coached Michigan team over the weekend was further evidence that Anderson is doing things right even when his roster isn't quite right. Arkansas looked crisp offensively for a half, then flagged badly. It was the kind of game that Stan Heath and John Pelphrey oversaw constantly, and it almost always ended with Hogs walking off the floor in utter dejection.
The Razorbacks bricked free throws that could have secured matters, got battered on the boards by a team that similarly relies on a three-guard lineup, and failed to throw Michigan's shooters outside of their comfort zone.
Fortunately, Anderson borrows from the Richardson playbook in the post-game as well as during the game. He was quick to call attention to his squad's faulty execution in the last 20 minutes and rarely, if ever, does the first-year coach dare to suggest that his team is simply too immature to get it fixed. Even after the Hogs got barreled over by Kentucky at Rupp Arena only three days earlier, Anderson docked himself points for poor pre-game preparation.
Where Anderson has already succeeded is in massaging the fans' psyche, which makes those 23-point losses against the likes of the Wildcats so much easier to tolerate, at least for now. The team may get outclassed by an obviously superior team, which is no great sin. But it appears that Anderson's gifts include an ability to forge a bond with young players and keep them afloat when half of the water is getting sucked down the pipes.
Consider that Pelphrey seemed to have captured Hog brilliance back in early 2009, only to follow a splendid sequence against Oklahoma and Texas with an SEC clunker (2-14, then a loss in the SEC tourney for good measure) and then two more middling years fraught with suspensions and dismissals. Remember Andre Clark, Montrell McDonald, Jason Henry and Brandon Moore? Didn't think so. Guys were on and off the roster constantly and it never appeared, at any time, that Pelphrey was capable of sloughing away the chaff while keeping the wheat tightly bundled.
Anderson has already had those challenges before him, and the Hogs have responded. When they got battered by UConn and Oklahoma, they bounced back nicely and ran off a few steadying non-conference wins. They have also followed each of their conference losses with wins. That isn't to say that a more extended low period won't happen, but it seems unlikely that a short string of losses will completely undo weeks of pretty competent work. And that fact alone is substantive evidence that the stubborn pursuit of Anderson was something more than just an appeasement of a salivating fan base.