On Thursday night, Arkansas’ basketball program has a chance to announce to the world it’s officially back. To show a primetime national audience that “40 Minutes of Hell” is alive, well and snarling, and to throw just a little shade on No. 1 Kentucky’s presumably wide open path to a conference title.
More than conference bragging rights are on the line when the 6-0 Hogs clash with 4-1 Iowa State in Ames, IA, at 8 p.m. on ESPN 2. No. 20 Iowa State looks to build off its Sweet 16 appearance last season and right the ship after a surprise loss to Maryland on November 25. No. 18 Arkansas, meanwhile, can rise to levels not seen since its early to mid 1990s heyday.
The Razorbacks, in the top five nationally in scoring, three-point accuracy, assists and turnovers forced, will try to disrupt the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio—Cyclone point guard Monte Morris. “Hopefully we can get the game to where it’s an up and down game, where depth is going to determine the outcome,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “We have to go up there, play with confidence, play with poise. There’s going to be some adversity, trust me.”
Iowa State generated dark horse Final Four talk entering the season and has been given nearly twice as good of odds to win the 2015 NCAA Championship as Arkansas. But a Razorback win shifts the dark horse label a couple states southward. Earlier this week, Arkansas clocked in at No. 9 in the RPI rankings which help determine seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas last had a top-10 RPI ranking two decades ago.
In the days when Big Nasty and Crew were steamrolling to a National Title and consecutive Final Four appearances, Arkansas exacted its will on practically anybody, anywhere, any time. “I thought the reason I was successful was that I played different than everybody else,” said Nolan Richardson, Arkansas’ coach from 1985 to 2002. “You had to go have seven or eight guys to do what I did with five. I never worked off of what you did. I don’t care what you do.”
Richardson’s ferocious full-court pressing style is no longer unique, but it’s still deadly in the right hands. Other coaches such as Virginia Commonwealth University’s Shaka Smart have adopted its principles for their own. Smart’s “Havoc” defense routinely paces the nation in steals, deflections and turnover margin and powered VCU’s drive to the 2011 Final Four. “Nolan Richardson is a mentor of mine,” Smart told Nooga.com. “Even though I met him only one time and he probably doesn’t know who I am.* But I study him. In our office, we have a stat sheet from the Arkansas team in 1993-94. People say we’re pretty good at playing fast. Statistically, we’re nothing compared to that team.”
Mike Anderson doesn’t need paper to reminisce on Arkansas’ only national championship team. He was Richardson’s trusty assistant coach almost every step of the way, and as head coach he’s put his own spin on his mentor’s M.O., calling it the Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball. It’s essentially the same thing. The main difference: It hasn’t yet propelled Anderson’s teams to the same heights Richardson reached.
Statistical trends portend this is the season Anderson will return the Razorbacks to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and potentially to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1996. The program has steadily improved since Anderson arrived four years ago. Last year, the Razorbacks barely missed making the tourney cut. This team returns six of the top seven scorers and has so far proven to be Anderson’s deepest, strongest, most athletic, most experienced and best shooting yet.
Anderson has at last filled his roster with players he recruited to his system. Richardson did the same thing in his first four years at Arkansas. By 1988-89, Richardson had brought in blue chippers like Ron Huery, Todd Day and Oliver Miller who would form the nucleus of the Hogs’ 1990 Final Four run. Similarly, highly rated prep players Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden (signed by predecessor John Pelphrey) form part of the current team’s core. Junior forward Michael Qualls, who has the college game’s most legit claim to the alias “Mr. #SCTop10,” wasn’t considered a blue chip but he’s playing a five-star level now with about 15 points and 5 rebounds per game along with stellar defense.
As with the original, defense fuels offense in today’s versions of “40 Minutes of Hell.” Sharpening defensive instincts means more turnovers and more shot opportunities. “It’s a great equalizer,” former VCA assistant Will Wade told Nooga.com. “When you play teams that are a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, maybe have a little bit more talent than you, the system allows you to have a chance.”
This was never more evident than last season when Arkansas, then unranked, beat Kentucky at home and on the road. The latter signaled Arkansas had started to vanquish its chronic road struggles since the late 1990s. A road win against SMU last week provided more proof, and a win in Ames, IA, would signal these Razorbacks are better suited for March Madness than any of their 21st-century predecessors.
“This team has to make the tournament,” Portis told USA Today. “It is our time.”
Coaches may not want to admit it, but when it comes to post-season success, the writing is often already on the wall before conference play even begins. Selection committees don’t look kindly on teams which flunk big early season showdowns on the road or neutral courts. It’s no coincidence Arkansas’ glory years ended around the same time it stopped winning these games.**
Richardson and Anderson fielded their best teams when their rosters feature tenacious yet heady guards who prized defense and could handle the point. Arlyn Bowers and Lee Mayberry in the early 1990s, and Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel in the mid 1990s, were prime examples.
In 1981, Richardson won an NIT championship in Tulsa with Mike Anderson at the helm. “He wasn’t the most talented of the guards that I coached, but nobody played as hard as he played,” Richardson said. “Nobody sacrificed his body as much as he did. I mean he would take a charge on a godd**n freight train. They don’t do that no more.”
Constant turnover at the combo guard position contributed to Arkansas’ recent road struggles. Talented underclassmen like Patrick Beverley, Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke briefly flourished but invariably left before their senior seasons. Six-foot-five Rashad Madden, now a senior, did stick around. But he wasn’t playing to his strengths last season by having to log major minutes as the primary ball-handler. Two point guards—freshman Anton Beard and junior college transfer Jabril Durham—have helped Madden so far this year but neither player has yet experienced the kind of frenzied, hostile atmosphere that Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum presents.
Most Razorback storylines revolve around the program’s mainstays—Richardson, Anderson, the veteran players. Yet Arkansas’ ability to reclaim its past glory ultimately boils down to whether its first-year guards can keep cool and shoot steady in unfriendly arenas. “We got discombobulated in the final few minutes of games,” Portis said, recalling the 2013-14 Hogs’ seven losses in 10 road games. “Are we going to finish teams off? That’s the biggest question.”
*Richardson definitely knows who Smart is. He recalled talking to him during a recent Final Four. Smart asked Richardson why adopted his unorthodox tactics when he was a young high school coach: “I was explaining to him, ‘You know, I had these little Mexican kids in El Paso. Every play was a jump shot. You ain’t going to beat nobody shooting jump shots every play. We couldn’t get to the basket we were so small. We only got one shot,” Richardson recalled. “I started out just like everyone else drawing plays and all that. But we weren’t beating anybody. It wasn’t getting me anywhere until I started running and trapping and double teaming.”
** November 29, 1997 was the last time Arkansas beat a ranked team on a neutral court in pre-conference play. Arkansas beat No. 17 Fresno State in Phoenix. And December 6, 1992 was the last time the program scored such a win on the road. The Hogs beat No. 9 Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Mike Bibby was 14 years old.