Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Anderson Putting Together Marvelous Coaching Job

Mike Anderson has shown the magic touch pulling together a team down the stretch after losing most of the key players from last season's 27-win squad. The Hogs won at Alabama for their fourth straight, including two in a row on the road.

I discounted winning at Missouri. The Tigers were lost deep in the jungle at that point in the season. And there was a little disclaimer with the victory at Tennessee just last weekend. The Vols were without two of their best players.

But the 62-61 victory at Alabama on Wednesday night has to be labeled as THE bright spot for the Arkansas basketball team. It was a true giant road victory against a team on a roll. The Tide had won six of eight to climb into NCAA tournament consideration. It was a masterful coaching job by Mike Anderson at Tuscaloosa.

It had to be a sweet victory for Anderson, the fifth-year Arkansas coach. Some might forget he grew up in Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama was rolling and one of the SEC's top players – perhaps the best – put on a show. Retin Obasahon did what I thought Michael Qualls might do for the Hogs had he returned for his senior season.

Obasahon scored 32 points to lead all scorers. The senior guard had Alabama in position to win on Senior Night until the Hogs put the clamps on him down the stretch with Anton Beard and Anthlon Bell staying in his path as the top tormentors in a 2-3 zone.

I did chuckle at the end when Alabama fans went crazy when Obasahon hit a long three at the buzzer. Well, they don't handle math so well in Tuscaloosa. They weren't real sure that the game was already over when Bell hit two free throws with four seconds left to give the Hogs an insurmountable lead.

The Hogs (16-14, 9-8) are in position to keep Anderson's record perfect. He's not had a losing record in his first 13 seasons as a head coach. The Hogs can pretty much clinch that much with a victory over South Carolina on Saturday. Game time at Bud Walton Arena is 4 p.m.

There were times that it looked bleak for the Hogs this season. Going all the way back to last spring when bad stuff seemed to come at this team in waves, it just didn't look like a winning season was possible. Bobby Portis declared for the NBA draft, followed closely by Qualls with the same decision. With the loss of Alandise Harris and Ky Madden to graduation from a 27-win team that finished second in the SEC, things seem to get desparate in a hurry.

There were some who thought both would return, but Qualls leaving early was clearly a surprise. He would have made a huge difference to this team.

Then, they lost signee Ted Kapita to academic eligibility problems. Then, there was also the counterfeiting charges that suspended Anton Beard and Jacorey Williams. Williams eventually was removed for good because of other issues. Beard missed the first semester as punishment.

There was one more blow that may have gone under the radar. Early in the season, forward Trey Thompson went down with a high ankle sprain. The sophomore from Forrest City struggled to find his game, supposedly much improved over the offseason. Thompson needed to play and for sure didn't need a setback.

All the while Anderson just kept coaching. He and his staff went about the task of putting a team together with everyone playing new roles. There were flashes here and there. And there were some near misses on the road where it looked like it was about to come together, but didn't.

And there were times that it looked like it might blow up, like when they blew a second-half lead at Bud Walton against lowly Auburn to cap a three-game losing streak. But it didn't blow up. In fact, it was the game that seemed to bring the team together and give Anderson the final coaching point to make his players understand that defense was the only answer.

After giving up 90 to Auburn, the Hogs have slowly but surely put the clamps on the opposition. Missouri scored 72 in a 14-point loss. LSU and Tennessee scored 65 and Alabama just 61.

This team could always score, but it often didn't get many stops. It's been about getting stops over the last four games.

I think back about the comments from senior point guard Jabril Durham after the Auburn loss. He left a potent three-point shooter over and over in crunch time in that game. He pointed the finger at himself in the post-game interviews, calling his mistakes “bone head.” Those type of mistakes have disappeared since then.

The bench has become a weapon. Thompson has become energized and a threat. Even Keaton Miles is starting to play his best basketball. He hit his first three at Alabama and nailed other jumpers when Alabama left him.

Jimmy Whitt has become a factor, too. Durham has hit shots when defenses have concentrated on Dusty Hannahs and Bell.

Of course, Moses Kingsley has been beastly in the paint. He's been able to take advantage of mismatches and also show some skill and toughness in finishing tough shots after contact.

It's clear that this team has been coached. Anderson has done wonders with Bell and Hannahs. Both were no more than spot-up shooters before this season. Both have flashed solid mid-range games and an ability to get their defenders in the air with clever fakes to find a better shot.

The key has been the play of the bench. No longer do Bell and Hannahs have to play 35 minutes. It's almost impossible to play that many minutes in Anderson's style anyway. With the proper rest, both are able to run their defenders ragged, eventually getting free on the screens by Kingsley, Thompson and Miles. Both guards have been terrific in the curl cuts off of screens in the high post area.

Of course, if you can shoot, you can score. Teams with shooters are capable of winning on the road. This team can make jumpers. Alabama defended the rim in decent fashion. But there were open jumpers in the mid-range area all night. The Hogs buried them.

It's been fun to watch it all come together. It's been a treat to watch this team just continue to work. It's clear they like each other. They share the basketball.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Hannahs in the early summer. He said there was a chemistry that would serve them well as they fought an uphill battle with so many key parts gone. And, he said one thing that has become so apparent, this bunch plays with a chip on its shoulder, wanting to prove that they belong and the lost talent from last year will not doom them. They knew not much was expected and that's a constant drive to prove everyone wrong. They were picked 11th in preseason. Sixth is possible.

“Those are great players,” Dusty said of the losses and the preseason predictions of doom. “Obviously, we hear things. But I don’t think anyone here is worried. We all are high major type players. We are playing at a great university in a great conference and we belong here. We are going to step up and we are all really confident.

“I think our (pickup) games right now are extremely competitive and there is talent out there. We are having great games. It’s two sets of five with very good players. We play the best of seven games and the first team to win four doesn’t let the other team live it down. I’ve never been in such competitive games.

“We want to win so bad and I think we will win. This is a great conference and we want to win it. I see the way things are going in this conference (with coaching changes at Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee) and it’s clear that it’s going to be very good. We are excited to be in the SEC and I think it’s going to be in basketball what it’s like in football right now.”

Some speculated in the summer that Anderson would be on the hot seat after this season because of the big slip in talent. With a talented class on the way and a strong finish to this season, I don't see it. In fact, I don't think Anderson will ever be on the hot seat, not after what I've seen in the last month.

I think people would be well advised to worry about someone other than Mike Anderson. He likes to borrow the line from his mentor, Nolan Richardson, when things look tough. If there is a fight between a bear and Mike, worry about the bear. Mike has gotten the best of the bear in these last four games. Maybe the bear never had a chance.

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