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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors directs his players against Abilene Christian Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mike Neighbors knows progress when he sees it.

For before the Greenwood native became the Arkansas Razorbacks' head women's basketball coach this season, he was an assistant to Coach Kevin McGuff, inheriting struggling programs at Xavier and the University of Washington and turning them into winners.

Succeeding McGuff as head coach at Washington when McGuff moved on to Ohio State, Neighbors took the Huskies all the way to the Final Four before coming home to his alma mater, where he had formerly assisted Gary Blair and for one year Susie Gardner.

Neighbors experienced Arkansas thriving under Blair, now the longtime Texas A&M coach with a national championship, and struggling under Gardner.

Neighbors inherited a team that finished 13-17 overall and 2-14 in the SEC under Jimmy Dykes last season.

But Neighbors sees, as do others like SEC Network analyst and former longtime Georgia women's Coach Andy Landers, an 8-3 team faring better than anticipated amid a tough nonconference schedule .

"I heard Andy Landers say on the SEC Network that we are certainly the surprise of the SEC so far," Neighbors said. "That the people on the SEC Network thought it would be hard for us to win nonconference games this year. For us to be siting here with several nonconference wins kind of validates a little bit."

He credits the previous regime for leaving some better players than he initially believed. Neighbors said he anticipated junior guard Malica Monk and senior guard Devin Cosper, his two leading scorers averaging 18.4 and 17.1 points per game respectively, "fitting our style perfectly," but that sophomore guard Jailyn Mason and sophomore post Kiara Williams surprised in person compared to their video of last season's games.

"I undervalued Jailyn Mason watching last year's film," Neighbors said. "She has been so steady for us in what she gives us offensively, defensively and leadership-wise and competitiveness-wise. And then Kiara Williams, seeing her consistency develop. That's a kid that really understands the flow of the game."

Neighbors awards all on the team an A for effort.

"When you have a group receptive to coaching, you can make progress," Neighbors said. "The blueprint that we used at Xavier and at Washington and all these places that we've been is pretty much holding true so far."

Neighbors' off-the-court blueprint goes back to Blair, the best promoter since P.T. Barnum. Blair ceaselessly pursues the rubber chicken circuit, speaking anywhere he thinks will entice a ticket-buying fan.

"I learned that from Coach Blair from driving him to most of those things," Neighbors said, laughing. "If I was lucky, I would get part of a chicken he didn't eat. I've been everywhere. I've spoken to groups of two and I've spoken to groups of 200. So far, after every group we've been to, somebody has come up after a game and said, 'I really enjoy the style of play.'"

The more that these Razorbacks and their fans enjoy feeding into each others' enjoyment, the more likely the greater the success that all can build upon to enjoy.

Sports on 12/20/2017

Print Headline: UA women turning heads under Neighbors

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