After a 110-80 throttling of Ole Miss back on March 5, Razorback senior guard Kikko Haydar grabbed the microphone and pronounced Hawg Ball was back.
While a 1-3 finish after winning eight of nine let an NCAA Tournament bid slip out of its hands and showed the program was not all the way back, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson believes the Razorbacks (22-12) took another step toward that this season.
"This time of year you want to still be playing and of course as you can see we are not," Anderson said. "But one of the things we talked about from last year was improve upon what we did the previous year and when you look at our record and how our team played and how our kids competed at a high level, I thought there was significant improvement.
"And based on the guys returning I think we have a great core coming back and recruiting, which is the lifeblood of any program, we feel we are going to have the opportunity to address some of the needs and that is our perimeter play has to continue to get better," Anderson added.
The Razorbacks got to post-season play for the first time since 2008, were above .500 for the second straight season, swept both games from Final Four club Kentucky and ended long losing streaks at Rupp Arena, Mississippi State and against Ole Miss.
Arkansas finished its season in the NIT where it whipped Indiana State 91-71 at home and then lost at California 75-64 in the second round.
The Razorbacks beat the two teams playing in Thursday's NIT championship – SMU and Minnesota – during the regular season, went 2-1 against teams in the NCAA Tournament's Final Four and were 5-5 against Top 100 clubs – their best mark in awhile.
"So our task for this year, the upcoming year and spring and summer and off-season time you talk about improving," Anderson added. "We want to get better. We want to improve 15 to 20 percent from what took place this year.
"But I will say it again, I thought our guys from start to finish this team developed over the course of the year. We didn't finish the way we would like to, but that's the learning curve. That's the next step with our team and with our program. But I thought we saw a team that can compete and compete at the highest level night in and night out."
That included a four-game stretch on the road where they won at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State, at Kentucky and lost to Missouri 86-85 after rallying from 10 down late and taking the lead.
"We continued to talk about the phase of taking the show on the road," Anderson continued. "I thought we did that and hopefully we will do it much more in the upcoming year."
Anderson said he is starting a complete evaluation of his team – coaches and players.
"That's what we're in the process of doing," Anderson said. "When I get away and kind of reflect, and I'm still in that mode right now, I'll put some things down. I'll visit with each and every member of my staff as well as our players, and even myself. I know there's work to be done. We're not where we want to be. But I think we're gaining traction.
"One of the things you always want to do is you want a chance to be in postseason play. So that's another step for our basketball team. But obviously there are bigger goals for our team. My quest continues to be to win a national championship. And the only way you're going to do that is you've got to be in the (NCAA) tournament. So our off-season will really be designated to getting better. To getting better from the previous year. And I think we've got the guys to do it with."
Arkansas is set return its three leading scorers from this season – 6-5 senior-to-be guard Rashad Madden (12.7), 6-10 sophomore-to-be forward Bobby Portis (12.3, 6.8 with 54 blocks) and 6-6 small forward Michael Qualls (11.6, 4.5).
That's different from a year ago when the Razorbacks did not have a single double-digit scorer returning with the loss of B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell.
"Last year coming in there were a lot of unknowns," Anderson said. "We talked about it. We didn't have a double figure scorer coming in and so for this team – you got to remember this team led the league in scoring. There was a lot more balance on our basketball team and I see the same next year.
"There are still some unknowns, but there will be more knowns this year than last year," Anderson added, "therefore the core coming back – I think that is important. You have got a place to start when you talk about the guys that are returning and then add on to make this team a much better basketball team."
The Razorbacks will also return three other significant contributors from this season in 6-6 senior Alandise Harris (9.4, 3.3 and 31 blocks), 6-3 junior shooting guard Anthlon Bell (7.2, 50-of-151 3-point shooting) and 6-10 sophomore center Moses Kingsley (4.0, 3.2 in an average of 11.5 minutes per game as well as 49 blocks).
Anderson is excited about the possibility of playing what should be a bigger and stronger Portis and Kingsley in next season's line-up after another year of strength and conditioning.
"I think experience is the thing that's going to propel those guys," Anderson said. "They got a chance to taste it. Bobby, I think had a tremendous freshman year when you talk about some of the things he did. Moses, points per minute, rebounds per minute, he was our most productive player. So this off-season is very important for him and our basketball team because I think that's a tough match-up when you're talking about those guys out there on the floor.
"...We have some guys that have got to get in the weight room and build their bodies up, get stronger and as they get stronger, play to their strength," Anderson added. "Let's say a guy like Bobby – one of the things he has got to work on in the off-season is getting that core stronger.
"We have seen the potential that he has, but he will be the first to admit after going through this league that now you have a better sense of the speed and the size, the quickness, the athletic ability of the players, the strength of these guys," Anderson continued. "Now in the off season you get a chance to go and get more prepared for it."
Although there has been some speculation after current sophomores Dee Wagner and Jacorey Williams might be transferring, Anderson said all returnees are working out at the present time and he will be meeting with them soon.
"I will visit with all of our guys and evaluate," Anderson said. "As the season unwinds you get away and get a chance to go assess where guys are and evaluate each and every player and my staff including myself. So those talks will start right after the Final Four. But for right now everyone is working out."
Arkansas will return eight players – including walk on Manuale Watkins - off of this season's team and will add in West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles (6-7, 217), who redshirted this season.
"Well when Keaton first came in he had an injury there at West Virginia with his hand," Anderson said. "So a lot of rehabilitation was taking place. But once he got cleared to practice and play, you saw an athletic, slashing forward that's got a good basketball IQ. He's rugged. When he gets in there he doesn't mind banging. He can run the floor. I think he's going to learn how to run the floor like we want to.
"He's a guy that's got a nose for the ball," Anderson added. "He can go get the basketball and he doesn't mind putting his body in there. He doesn't mind sacrificing his body. And one of the reps he had was he was a good defensive player. So I think he's going to add, hopefully, a skill forward that will give us some rebounding on the boards. A guy that has a pretty good basketball IQ. He passes the ball well."
Arkansas is also expected to benefit from Madden moving to shooting guard while freshman signee Anton Beard (6-1, 180) of North Little Rock and incoming Seminole State junior college standout Jabril Durham (6-1, 180) man the point guard duties.
"I think is will be important," Anderson said. "There are times in a game when you have to have somebody that you can put the ball in their hands and they can get you into something and make plays. We did it by committee and I thought those guys did a good job. When you look at the numbers that these guys had – (senior Fred) Gulley had 16 turnovers the whole season. That's pretty good.
"But having guys that can make plays and even more importantly not only make plays for themselves, but for other people," Anderson said. "And I like attacking guards. To have some guys that can embody that and now some guys with the experience of understanding that a little bit more, those are the toughest teams to defend. When your forwards can attack and your guards can attack, it puts a lot of pressure on a lot of people's defense."
Arkansas struggled at times against zones, including against California.
"So when people play you zone – which we saw a lot of zones this year – now we can get into the gaps and we've got some guys with some big hands and now we can get them great shots," Anderson said. "And the defense collapses and we have some guys that can step out and make shots."
Miles, Beard and Durham will be joined by 6-10 Forrest City senior Trey Thompson and 6-5 Arlington, Texas, Martin guard Nick Babb as newcomers on Arkansas' roster next season.
"We are bringing in guys that are used to winning," Anderson added. "...Those guys have had good high school careers and that's a tribute to those guys for the hard work that they have done. As they get ready to make that next step, this summer is going to be important for those guys to come in and get acclimated not only with the surroundings and the school at the university, but with their teammates.
"I thought that was big here with this team – the bonding that took place. I think as those guys come in our guys will open their arms up to them and they will get a chance to learn their ropes so to speak before we get to fall. So it is a big summer for those guys coming in to improve and get better in the off-season."
Anderson noted that his team is still in recruiting mode even as numerically it is filled up.
"Best player out there," Anderson said when asked what he was looking for this spring. "I think that's going to be the key. We're still recruiting. Never stop recruiting. But the next best player out there that's going to help our basketball team. Whether it be perimeter, whether it be a guy of size...We're just trying to find the best fit."
Arkansas took some heat because it's non-conference slate included some teams that were 300 or above in the RPI, but Anderson said taken as a whole the schedule was tough.
"It was challenging enough," Anderson said. "And I think it's going to get even more challenging. I really do. We'll be anticipating, you have the SEC-Big 12 match-up that will take place next year. You look at the teams that we played. When people talk about SMU, they're in the championship game of the NIT. Minnesota. They're in the championship game. Clemson was in it (NIT Final Four).
"Like I said, the perception is they weren't good teams," Anderson added. "But they were very, very good teams. Of course, the teams that are in the tournament right now. Kentucky. So we played some people. California was a very good basketball team. Gonzaga. But that's besides the point. The key is you've got to win games. You've got to win games. We will continue to play a competitive schedule. I don't mind playing anybody home-and-home and I think we'll see that."
Next's season squad will go on the road in non-conference play to Clemson and SMU and will also play in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge – although the foe and site have not yet been determined.
Anderson also said his team was looking at a possible pre-season tournament.
"We're working on it right now," Anderson said.
He's also working on hiring another strength and conditioning coach.
"David Deets resigned as of last week," Anderson said. "He's going on into private business. We're in the market of finding us another strength coach. David was with me for eight years and did an unbelievable job. It's amazing the things he did. All the things I wanted our guys to be, he did a tremendous job.
"The guys that needed the weight, he put that on them," Anderson added. "But more about the explosiveness, flexibility that was what I wanted. The things he did were more basketball specific. As we move forward that's the type of guy we're going to get in here."
Anderson is excited about the fans that came out this season – especially once conference play started.
Arkansas averaged 14,202 fans per game this season – a mark that bumped up to 16,827 during SEC games.
"I thought it was awesome," Anderson said. "I thought our fans came out and when they came they were excited, and I thought they got a show. There were some games where the weather was crazy, but in conference play there were almost 17,000. That ain't been done in a while.
"That tells me that we're putting a product on the floor that our fans are enjoying watching them play - they're connecting with them," Anderson said. "I think you see when our guys come off the floor they're engaged with our students, engaged with our fans. So it's making Bud Walton Arena a place people fear coming in. You want it to be that way. I want to thank those fans for coming out and making this arena.
"But I'm not satisfied until we have every seat filled each and every night," Anderson added. "We're going to put a product out there that our fans can appreciate.
"Razorback fans are used to a certain style of ball - winning basketball first, but exciting basketball where kids are leaving it all on the floor," Anderson said.
Anderson also stressed that he is in no way satisfied with how things are going.
"I don't ever get comfortable," Anderson said. "We just roll our sleeves up and go to work. That to me, more than anything else. We have got an idea of what we have and we have got a core of guys that fit what we are doing. Now we are going to bring in some newcomers and that is going to be critical as we put them with the guys that are returning.
"Two things that I always tell our guys," Anderson added. "We want to build on what has taken place so be hungry and humble, but we want to continue and roll up our sleeves. We are never comfortable. If you get comfortable in this position or as a basketball player, when you start doing that, that is when you are subject to fail."
Anderson Wants Continued Improvement
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