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Photo courtesy of Razorback Communications.
Much praise has been lavished on the unranked Razorbacks’ win over No. 5 Texas A&M last Wednesday night. The win was yet another brick in the foundation upon which Bud Walton Arena’s fearsome national reputation has expanded since opening in 1993. In that span, the Hogs have an outstanding 30-20 record against Top 25 teams while unranked. And when hosting No. 5 teams, Arkansas is 4-0 altogether.
The numbers four and five are important ones for the past and future of Razorback basketball. It was in seasons four and five that the two greatest coaches in program history — Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson — achieved their big postseason breakthroughs. Arkansas won 32 games in Sutton’s fourth year and crashed the Final Four, and the next year made an Elite Eight appearance with 25 wins. Richardson also won 25 games in his fourth year as UA coach, then upped it to 30 games and a Final Four appearance in Year No. 5.
Photo courtesy of Razorback Communications.
Mike Anderson was tracking along a similar career arc as Sutton and Richardson through last season, his fourth, when the Hogs won 27 and returned to the NCAA Tournament. Anderson’s fifth Hogs team this year would be Sweet Sixteen caliber had it returned stars Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls. But they left early for the pros and Anderson’s program has regressed into the middle of the SEC pack from the upward arc of previous seasons.
Where the program goes from here again boils down to fours and fives, this time in the form of recruiting stars. Arkansas’ previous surges under Sutton and Richardson would not have happened unless those coaches had first signed a group of four and five star-caliber recruits who not only played well together, but played well within the confines of those coaches’ systems.
For Sutton, of course, that first group was a legendary collection of in-state stars — Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer — the “Triplets” who led Arkansas to a national No. 3 finish in 1978. Richardson’s first prime-time group came from bordering states – Ron Huery, and then the supreme threesome of Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller. Their success helped cement the 1992 signing of the biggest recruit in state history, Corliss Williamson, chosen as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. The 1994 national championship doesn’t happen without him.
Mike Anderson hasn’t yet been able to bring in the same sheer number of four and five-star players, and the talent deficit is a big reason why Arkansas couldn’t absorb the loss of Portis and Qualls and maintain its level of success from his Year 4 into Year 5.
The most glaring factor in the deficit is an inability to consistently win recruiting battles with SEC rivals over the biggest in-state stars.
Below are listed the state’s top in-state recruits of the last decade, according to 247Sports.com. You’ll notice two things stand out:
Michael Washington (McGehee) 4 star
Grade .9781 Signed with Arkansas
Chris Brown (Searcy) 3 star
Grade .8556 Wichita State
Mykal Riley (Pine Bluff) 3 star
Grade .8556 Alabama
James Anderson (Junction City) 5 star
Grade .9905 Oklahoma State
Michael Sanchez (Springdale) 4 star
Grade .9655 Arkansas
Nate Rakestraw (Springdale) 3 star
Grade .8859 Arkansas
Trey Finn (Little Rock) 3 star
Grade .8556 Arkansas State
Andre Clark (North Little Rock) 3 star
Grade .8444 Arkansas
Malcoln Kirkland (Fort Smith) 3 star
Grade .8111 Oklahoma State
AJ Walton (Little Rock) 4 star
Grade .9576 Baylor
Fred Gulley (Fayetteville) 3 star
Grade .8734 Oklahoma State
Tyrone Hanson (Texarkana) 3 star
Grade .8556 Jackson State
Kenyon McNeaill (Conway) 3 star
Grade .8872 Louisiana Tech
Preston Purifoy (Conway) 3 star
Grade .8553 UAB
Aaron Cooper (Jacksonville) 3 star
Grade .8218 Missouri State
Rashad Madden (Lepanto) 4 star
Grade .9819 Arkansas
Hunter Mickelson (Jonesboro) 4 star
Grade .9715 Arkansas
Aaron Ross (Little Rock) 4 star
Grade .9404 Arkansas
[This group, signed by John Pelphrey, was dubbed the “Triplets 2.0” by Archie Goodwin. Mickelson transferred to Kansas after two years. While Ross never made it to campus, the Texas Tech forward still has much love for the Hogs]
Archie Goodwin (LR) 5 star
Grade .9943 Kentucky
Bobby Portis (Little Rock) 5 star
Grade .9932 Arkansas
Dayshawn Watkins (Jacksonville) 3 star
Grade .8946 UAB
Anton Beard (NLR) 4 star
Grade .9636 Arkansas
Trey Thompson (Forrest City) 3 star
Grade .8470 Arkansas
Kahron Ross (Jonesboro) 3 star
Grade .8193 Lehigh
KeVaughn Allen (NLR) 4 star
Grade .9751 Florida
Marquis Pointer (Jonesboro) 2 star
Grade .7000 College of Charleston
Malik Monk (Lepanto) 5 star
Grade .9979 Kentucky
Eric Curry (LR) 4 star
Grade .9331 Minnesota
Payton Willis (Fayetteville) 3 star
Grade .9011 Vanderbilt
Despite a run of recent bad luck and departures of in-state stars, the future actually looks bright for Mike Anderson’s program. With the individual success this year of Dusty Hannahs, Jabril Durham, Anthlon Bell and Moses Kingsley, he and his staff are proving they can develop players who commit to their system.
Hannahs and Kingsley could return next year as seniors to join a much anticipated recruiting class that includes three of the top five players in junior college. And this time around, they are guaranteed to play under the coach who recruited them, in the system they were recruited for – unlike the situation with that hyped 2011 class.
The news could get even better after that for Mike Anderson, because at the high school ranks Arkansas is producing potentially the best group of big men in state history. And the Hogs have already landed a commitment from 6-10 center Daniel Gafford, a four-star junior at El Dorado.
Meanwhile, two Little Rock sophomores, 7-3 Connor Vanover and 6-8 Ethan Henderson, are both potential five stars. ESPN or 247Sports analysts rank both players in the Top 20 nationally for their classes, regardless of position. Vanover, a junior national team member and legit three-point shooter, isn’t as athletic as NBA rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis but his shooting range could be just as devastating on the collegiate level. Henderson has been a center at Parkview High School but may project to develop into more of a big wing player in college.
States the size of Arkansas rarely produce three big men of this caliber in the span of two years. Mike Anderson has proven he can find and develop underrated guards, but he needs better depth at the front court positions to return the program to the same levels Nolan Richardson and Eddie Sutton reached by the end of their Years No. 4 and 5.
The Razorbacks have repeatedly proven they will win more than their share of the biggest basketball battles in state. They won’t get back to winning most of their games on the road, though, until they first get back to winning most of the biggest in-state recruiting battles, too.
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