State of the Hogs: Sweet Dreams

It's all about the players. The Natural State has talent for Mike Anderson to build what Arkansas fans remember.

Arkansas basketball has a proud tradition. There is the 1994 NCAA championship, the runner-up finish in 1995 and Final Four trips in 1978 and 1990 and a No. 2 final ranking in 1991.

But the Hogs have not been to the Sweet Sixteen since Nolan Richardson's 1996 team – with Pat Bradley, Kareem Reid, Darnell Robinson, Lee Wilson and Derek Hood – bowed out to UMass in Atlanta. That team was No. 18 in the final Associated Press poll.

It's been a long painful drought for Arkansas fans, some of whom fancied their school as a basketball power during the days under Eddie Sutton and Richardson.

The last seven games are reminders that the Hogs are still not there yet. A 2-5 start in SEC play – with two home-court losses – mean they will be hard pressed to make the NCAA tournament again this season.

How did it happen? How did the Hogs fall so far and stay there for so long?

The answer lies on the recruiting trail. I'm convinced the Hogs can still get return to a prominent role in March Madness – if the players can be found. It's going to help Mike Anderson that basketball in the state of Arkansas is on the rise. High school basketball is a wonderful place right now in the Natural State.

It's even surging in the Ozarks, where football was once the only thing that mattered on the high school front. All you had to do is be in the Springdale High gymnasium Tuesday night to watch sophomore Malik Monk lead Bentonville to a big victory on a last-second 30 footer. Monk is a consensus national top 10 player in the Class of 2016.

North Little Rock, with UA signee Anton Beard, is a treat any night. The Charging Wildcats have a wealth of Division I talent, including Beard and Kevaughn Allen, Adrian Moore and K. J. Hill.

It's these kinds of players – and the likes of current UA forward Bobby Portis -- who I think helped Anderson decide to leave Missouri for the Ozarks. Anderson can get the Hogs back to the Sweet Sixteen with Arkansas kids and a solid surrounding cast like Nick Babb and Moses Kingsley. Forrest City's Trey Thompson is the kind of big body the Hogs are aching for now.

But this column is about what happened as much as what might happen in the future. How did the Hogs get here?

It's about recruiting. When it slipped with Arkansas basketball, the Sweet Sixteens disappeared. When the Hogs missed out on the likes of Emeka Okafor (and others), the road woes arrived.

And I know when it began to slip. It happened when the Arkansas athletic department slapped sanctions on Richardson's program. It started when Marcus Saxon didn't make it to school, then Sunday Adebayo and Jesse Pate were declared ineligible. Pate went to the CBA, Adebayo to Memphis.

Eventually, Richardson fought and won for the return of Adebayo, given a rare extra year by the NCAA, an admission of a botched investigation and premature sanctions.

That was the dismantling of the nation's No. 1 ranked recruiting class, all because of a witch hunt after Richardson won a national title and came within a whisker of a second.

Recruiting slipped with the NCAA investigation. And, it probably robbed Richardson of some energy and was no doubt at the root of an internal battle with athletic director Frank Broyles.

There is little doubt that the basketball program had slipped under Richardson. Not winning enough cost him his job as much as anything that came out of his last two press conferences.

But there were some successes on the recruiting trails, including the arrival of J. J. Sullinger, who left after just one year. I always wondered what Andre Iguodala would have looked like with Sullinger? Or, would Ronnie Brewer been at Arkansas with either of those?

Some say Iguodala was gong to be a one-and-done, that Richardson didn't covet Brewer. And what about Jared Sullinger, now with the Celtics? Could he have followed his older brother? Richardson was close to their dad, Satch.

What if? There's a lot of them there. But those are the kind of players that would have put Arkansas back in business for a Sweet Sixteen type team.

So what happened with the program under Stan Heath and John Pelphrey? They were just the wrong guys. Neither had winning head coaching experience. Heath was too soft on players. They ran the program. Pelphrey was out of players after the senior class that Heath left that wasn't so bad. But there was nothing left and he took chances as far as character and academics trying to get a quick fix.

Heath got a little unlucky with Olu Famutimi's knee injury. That clouded his vision on who to run the offense through. It should have been Pookie Modica from the start and that kept things from sailing smoothly.

Pelphrey never had control of his ship. How many suspensions were there? There were stories about wild practices where the players were as loud as the coach. That never works.

But it can win at Arkansas. Anderson still needs players. He's got some pieces to the puzzle, as everyone likes to call it. He needs next year's class and some maturity from Portis and Kingsley inside. Michael Qualls has talent, too. He was better against shorter opposition in the non-conference, but he appeared to struggle against better length in the early part of the SEC season. He's looked good against Missouri.

Arkansas can win on the national scale in any sport. There is proof of that with track, gymnastics, golf and just recently in women's soccer. Top athletes in any sport will come to Fayetteville. John McDonnell and Chris Bucknam have proven that in men's track. There are no great gymnasts in our state, but there is a top six program on campus now.

There is great tradition in the Arkansas football program under many coaches. It's one of the reasons Bret Bielema left a solid Wisconsin program to try the SEC.

There is no reason Arkansas basketball can't come back. One of the keys is what I saw in Bud Walton on Tuesday night, a great crowd in what is still one of the nation's best facilities. I called it "the insurance policy" when I walked into it for the first time in the fall of 1992.

I walked down to Bud Walton Arena from Barnhill with Corey Beck, Scotty Thurman, Dwight Stewart, Corliss Williamson, Roger Crawford and Craig Tyson. They wouldn't play there until November of 1993. The concrete walls of the lower level were poured. There were some steel beams above us, but we could see blue sky.

We were there to shoot the cover for our Basketball Preview before that crew's last season in Barnhill. We took a basketball for the photo shoot. Beck was bouncing it. A construction worker walked past kinda chuckling. Beck, always engaging, wanted to know what was funny.

"Guys, we don't have the goals up just yet," the worker said. "I don't know none of you, but you guys do look like players!"

Never did anyone make a better call. There may never be another group like that roll into Bud Walton. But that's what it takes, players. When it happens, the Sweet Sixteens will return.

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