Eric Musselman, Pittman Smart to Pay Heed to Neighbors’ Come-to-Jesus Moment

Mike Neighbors, Sam Pittman, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

When news broke earlier this week that both Taliah Scott and Saylor Poffenbarger were entering the transfer portal, it only added to growing questions surrounding women’s basketball head coach Mike Neighbors’ status at Arkansas.

After a disappointing season that saw the Razorbacks go 6-10 in SEC play and finish 10th in the conference, losing the team’s leading scorer and rebounder was far from an ideal start to the offseason – especially given the fact that Arkansas lost its WBIT opener against Tulsa on Thursday by 18 points.

Scott came to Arkansas as a five-star prospect out of high school, ranked 11th overall in her class and named a McDonald’s All-American. She lived up to the hype and then some, making the SEC All-Freshman team after averaging 22.1 points per game in her debut season.

Poffenbarger arrived in Fayetteville as a highly-touted transfer from UConn who was a top-30 prospect out of high school. She was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2023, and returned to the Hogs to average a double-double with 10.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game this season.

Neighbors said at Wednesday’s press conference that while the departure of his star duo definitely hurts, his staff has a blueprint in place to plug the gaps heading into next season.

“It changes our roster,” Neighbors said. “I mean, I had it on the board, believe me. I had all 15 names across the board as if something happened to all of them, so we have a plan to put in.”

Part of that contingency plan looks like it will include a change in what the staff prioritizes in recruiting both high school prospects and transfers moving forward.

A shift in strategy

During Mike Neighbors’ time in Fayetteville, his strongest asset has certainly been his recruiting abilities. While Arkansas is not a historic powerhouse in women’s basketball, his rosters have been stacked with blue-chip talent. The Head Hog has brought in a whopping six McDonald’s All-Americans to Arkansas, but none of them achieved the sort of overall success that was expected of them.

Scott is departing this offseason alongside Fort Smith native Jersey Wolfenbarger, who left the team back in November less than one week before the season started. After transferring in from Oregon State, Fayetteville’s Sasha Goforth has yet to make much of an impact as she has dealt with a variety of physical and mental health issues over the past two seasons. Center Maryam Dauda, a Bentonville High alum, appears to be returning next year after averaging 9.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

Former Razorbacks Amber Ramirez and Destiny Slocum formed a fearsome backcourt duo back in 2021-22, but were upset in the first round by 13-seed Wright State. Odds for Arkansas to make such an early exit were quite low according to a review of the Ceasars SportsBook.

Six McDonald’s All Americans. Zero tournament wins.

Neighbors admitted that while his recruiting model has looked great on paper, he needs to re-evaluate his screening process to create more on-court success.

“I probably lost a little sight of that and got caught up in the rankings or the stars…it’s going to force me to take a look at our style of play…there’s no question,” Neighbors added. “Another mistake I made was I just kind of started collecting talent and I didn’t really spend a lot of time to see if they fit together.

“Traditionally I’ve been a pretty good puzzle maker…that was a little harder this year. We are spending a lot more time to make sure that these pieces fit together rather than just mass talent.”

Neighbors mentioned how he can take a few notes from Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman and his extra-thorough portal research to find good fits for the women’s team next year.

“We are kind of using Coach Muss’ philosophy of looking at every name that goes in the portal,” Neighbors said. “I don’t recognize the name and I look up and they averaged 18 and 15 at Lafayette or somewhere…that’s not a real kid, so y’all don’t have to worry about me tampering, but something like that.”

The Head Hog also cited former Razorback football coaches like Houston Nutt that made it a priority to find recruits that, above all else, wanted to play for Arkansas. Some of that Nuttesque passion shined through with Neighbors’ first transfer commitment of the offseason. A day after the Scott and Poffenbarger news broke, he teased fans by simply tweeting out a Hog emoji – alluding to good news on the way.

That came in the form of Arkansas State transfer Izzy Higginbottom, a junior guard who was 8th in the nation in scoring last year at 22.2 points per game. The Batesville native was named first-team All-Sun Belt after transferring to the Red Wolves from Missouri. Out of high school, however, the Razorback staff never really pursued her.

“I got it wrong the first time around,” Neighbors said. “That was the first line of the text I sent Izzy Higginbottom Monday morning as soon as her name appeared in the transfer portal. What had I gotten wrong? Coming out of high school, I totally undervalued her desire to be a Razorback.”

Neighbors continuously got text messages from Higginbottom’s family members telling him how stupid he was for not recruiting her, which he said was due to his lack of need for another guard.

However, he was a firsthand witness to his mistake – and just how right her family members were – when the Hogs faced Arkansas State back in November. The Razorbacks got the victory, but Higginbottom was a headache for Arkansas as she scored 27 points on 9 of 14 shooting. She also scored 19 points for the Red Wolves in Bud Walton Arena two years ago.

In line with the philosophy of wanting players who really want to be Razorbacks, Neighbors said that Higginbottom’s urgency to get up to Fayetteville was what sealed her quick commitment.

“Luckily for us, Izzy was raised in a strong family that believes in second chances,” Neighbors said. “When she responded to my offer for a visit sometime this week with, ‘How ‘bout we head up there now,’ I knew we were a perfect fit.”

With his previous star-focused strategy flaming out, it sounds like Neighbors will continue to look to mid-major schools for good fits eager to join the Arkansas basketball program.

Could Musselman and Pittman follow suit?

Some of the lessons that Neighbors has learned about the transfer portal can be applied across different sports, and specifically to two other head coaches on the Hill.

“That’s the way the game is headed: get as much talent as you can, you’ll figure it out,” Neighbors said. “There’s some evidence out there in both men’s and women’s basketball that that might not be the proper way to look at it.”

This might be something worth reflecting on more for Eric Musselman, Neighbors’ Arkansas basketball counterpart on the male side. It’s no secret Musselman’s consistent dependence on the transfer portal has led to major year-over-year roster turnover, including nine newcomers to this past season’s roster.

Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman remarked that “the portal giveth, and the portal taketh away.” That could not have been more true for Razorback basketball this year. Whatever Musselman brought in talent-wise, he lost in team chemistry. What resulted was a dysfunctional mess, as seen by the 16-17 overall record.

Take it from Khalif Battle, who said after the SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina that the Gamecocks won because they played unselfish, cohesive basketball.

“They play together,” Battle said. “That was the difference in the game. I think we’re just as talented as anybody in the country, but they just play together. They were a team out there.”

The Razorbacks, simply put, were not. Some of the players were disconnected with each other on the court, and definitely not in sync with the coaching staff off the court. If Muss joins Neighbors in searching for players who really want to wear a Razorback uniform, there might be a formula for success there.

Some might argue that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between Arkansas roots and passion for the logo, citing Devo Davis stepping away from the program for parts of the last two seasons and then leaving the program for good by entering the transfer portal on Wednesday.

But these arguments are a little reductive, and too easily ignore how much Davis did for the program during his time in Fayetteville. While last season certainly didn’t go to plan, that doesn’t change the fact that the Jacksonville native played a key role in the Razorbacks’ best postseason success since the 1990s.

Whether it was his last-second game-winning shot against Oral Roberts to send Arkansas to the Elite 8 or his dominant second half performance to lead the Hogs to an upset of No. 1 seed and defending national champion Kansas, Davis has had his fingerprints on some of the program’s biggest moments in the last 30 years.

There’s a reason for his moniker of “March Devo”, and that shouldn’t be forgotten after one lousy year where the senior guard was far from the team’s biggest problem. While some fans might have questioned his effectiveness this season, you really can’t question his accomplishments with the program.

It also must be mentioned how much fellow Arkansas products like Jaylin Williams and Moses Moody did for the Razorbacks during the Musselman era, too. Alongside Davis, the charge-taking extraordinaire and the eventual one-and-done lottery pick played important parts in memorable tournament runs.

Layden Blocker Leaves; No Arkansan on Roster

On Thursday, freshman Layden Blocker became the latest Arkansas basketball player to announce his transfer, joining three other Razorbacks including Morrilton, Ark. native Joseph Pinion and Devo Davis.

So now, for the first time in a long time, the state’s flagship university does not feature any basketball players actually from Arkansas. Hardly anybody would have expected the “proud damn state” of Arkansas to be in this kind of situation fives years into the Musselman era, when the overall talent coming from the state is near an all-time high.

This turn of events may be temporary, though. Musselman is working to buck this troubling trend with his early offseason recruiting efforts, as some of Arkansas’ first portal contacts have been to in-state players and schools – including Arkansas Tech’s Taelon Peters and UAPB’s Kylen Milton. UCA’s Camren Hunter has also expressed interest in the Hogs.

Meanwhile, Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman sits on an increasingly hot seat due to mediocre recruiting and apparent leadership issues within the team. The man with the jukebox could also benefit from Nutt’s wisdom of chasing in-state kids who want to play for the program.

Unfortunately, Arkansas has not done a good enough job putting a fence around the state. While keeping in-state prospects like Charleston Collins and Braylen Russell was important, the Razorbacks have also let a number of legacy recruits with extensive connections to the university slip away.

If Pittman wants to right the ship in Fayetteville, he’ll need to take better advantage of these connections and home-state ties to pull the Razorbacks out of the SEC recruiting cellar. Earlier in his tenure, he had gritty Arkansas natives like Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan embodying his own blue-collar ethos, but hasn’t yet been able to find similarly overachieving Natural State products to carry on that torch. 

Houston Nutt also made a point of taking on lower-rated Arkansas natives to fill out his football roster because he felt, essentially, that the homegrown pride would help rachet up intensity and competitiveness in practice sessions.

In 2007, which was Nutt’s final season, the Arkansas football roster included 52 players from the Natural State. Last season, there were just 42 on the roster. There are only 36 on the spring roster, but that number will change in the fall because linebacker signee Wyatt Simmons is not yet on campus and there will likely be walk-ons who leave and join the team.

Beyond that, those players didn’t have big roles on the team. In fact, there were four games in which no Arkansas native was in the starting lineup. According to research by Best of Arkansas Sports’ Andrew Hutchinson, that had never happened from 2000-22, which is the timeframe for which we have complete starting data. There’s a good chance it happens again in 2024, as the only Arkansan really vying for a starting job now is wide receiver Isaiah Sategna.

Surviving the hot seat

Neighbors’ on-court results during his seven-year tenure at Arkansas have left a lot to be desired, and fans’ patience is running thin after missing out on the Big Dance once again. The Razorbacks have made the NCAA Tournament just twice during his tenure, and have yet to win a game in that competition.

The 54-year-old has a .605 winning percentage during his time in Fayetteville, which is below the program’s historical average of .609. Considering all of the talent that’s been brought in, it’s fair for fans to have higher expectations than middling SEC finishes and WNIT bids.

For the Greenwood native to right the ship at his alma mater, he’ll need to conjure some magic in the transfer portal to retool his roster with the right pieces to win next year. While Neighbors has recruiting and finances on his side for the time being, his buyout drops from $700,000 to just $150,000 after next season. 

That means unless the once-master puzzle maker gets things turned around soon, he may find himself the odd piece out.


Transfer portal changing the game

Neighbors also got candid about how the transfer portal has affected the landscape of college athletics, and how it has changed the day-to-day workload for head coaches.

“I’m hoarse and we hadn’t played a game in how long…it’s because I’ve been on the phone longer than when I started trying to date [my wife] JC,” the Arkansas basketball coach said with a laugh. “I’m working half the day on my current team, and half the day on my future team.”

The 54-year-old also spoke on the divisive nature of NIL and the transfer portal, citing a generational gap between older coaches favoring the status quo and younger coaches going all in on the future.

“There’s some young people in our profession that are all for it…and it’s us older people that have seen it both ways that are going ‘I don’t know’. There’s a lot of coaches who feel like Nick Saban,” Neighbors said. “And then there’s a lot of coaches that feel like Lane Kiffin and say bring it on.”

“I do kind of love this [general manager] role…I don’t know if I’m any good at it yet, because nobody does. So I can’t spend any time bemoaning the process.

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