FAYETTEVILLE — At 12-4, Mike Anderson certainly starts ahead of the last time he was a part of Arkansas changing basketball systems.
Arkansas’ first-year head coach was an assistant under Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson in 1985-1986, when the Razorbacks installed what Anderson is re-installing now.
It was a tough sell back then, and not a successful one. Anderson’s Razorbacks have already won as many games as Richardson’s 12-16 Razorbacks did their entire first season.
Looking back, Richardson had it tougher in part because his immediate predecessor fared so much better than the two coaches who preceded Anderson.
The system Eddie Sutton had in place - a system mostly directly opposite of Richardson’s other than defense was at its core - had been the most successful long term in Arkansas’ history. It was a still beloved era that was Arkansas’ most golden era until Richardson’s teams soared to unprecedented heights in the 1990s, including the UA’s lone basketball national championship and national runner-up finish.
The entirely inherited players on Richardson’s first team, just as Anderson plays entirely from the hand that John Pelphrey dealt, had just been a part of 22-13 team that was considered an off year. Fueled by graduated seniors Joe Kleine and Charles Balentine, that “off year” nonetheless marked Arkansas’ ninth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. It also included an NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Iowa and came close to springing an upset in its 68-65 second-round loss to No. 3 St. John’s, led by eventual NBA player Chris Mullin.
As Richardson often said of the team he inherited, it was asking a lot, probably too much, of players so entrenched in a system that had been so successful to switch to a system so radical from what they had been recruited.
Anderson is not so encumbered.
Arkansas’ past nine years under Stan Heath and Pelphrey were not all bad.
Heath handled well walking the delicate diplomatic tightrope in the wake of the fiery end to Richardson’s tenure.
Pelphrey can be thanked for recruiting this nationally renowned freshman foursome of BJ Young, Ky Madden, Hunter Mickelson and Devonta Abron, which should provide Anderson a foundation for years to come.
However, ask a Razorbacks basketball gathering to define the Arkansas systems of Heath and Pelphrey and the question would stump the panel.
For Anderson, that’s good. He inherited players ready to embrace a system, particularly a run the-court system that Pelphrey professed he wanted to run and recruited for though he never was willing to run it wide open.
Still, while ahead of the game, Anderson’s Hogs suffer drawbacks similar to Richardson’s second year at Arkansas.
Like these Razorbacks who are 12-0 in Fayetteville but 0-4 away from Walton Arena, that 19-14 team of 1986-1987 couldn’t win on the road, either. They would learn, though.
Two years later, remnants of that 1986-1987 team played for a Southwest Conference championship team that went 25-7.
That history enables Arkansas fans to feel considerably more optimistic about the basketball future than many Arkansas fans felt way back then.