Mike Neighbors Dug the Hole, But NIL Is Going to Bury Him

Taliah Scott, Samara Spencer, Arkansas basketball, Auburn basketball, transfer portal, NIL
photo credit: Instagram/thetaliahscott / Arkansas Athletics

Women’s basketball, specifically women’s college basketball, finally appears to be getting the respect it has long deserved. The women’s national championship game between Iowa and South Carolina averaged more than 18 million viewers on traditional television. Contrast that with the men’s title game, which drew just a touch over 14.

About damn time.

Do not, however, carry yourself under the delusion such a state of affairs will last. The women’s game may at times be more popular than the men’s game from here on out, given star power is what draws eyeballs in a TikTok world and in college the female superstars stick around long enough for the fans to really care. 

Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese. They have star power. The men have…Zach Edey? The best players in the NBA are getting maybe a year in college. Maybe. Then moving on. The sport at that level, on the men’s side, needs to re-evaluate its place in the cultural landscape.

Except in Arkansas, apparently, where the sheets had to be washed after Razorbacks fans learned athletic director Hunter Yurachek landed John Calipari as the next men’s basketball coach. He did so, in large part, with the help of big-money donors like John Tyson, who practically brokered the deal between his favorite AD and one of his good friends

Calipari said in his introductory press conference that Arkansas’ commitment to increasing NIL dollars was a factor in his decision to take up residence in Fayetteville. Tyson and Co., undoubtedly, will chip in funds to bring the best on-court talent to Arkansas as they can, though rank-and-file Natural Staters are expected to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and donate, too. In this promo video eerily reminiscent of commercials for car dealerships in the 1980s, does Calipari have a deal for you!

Arkansas Basketball Departures

Mike Neighbors, on the other hand, isn’t getting such love. No one is banging down the doors of the Arkansas basketball program on the women’s side to hand Neighbors money to go out and get the best recruits and transfer possible. He can’t even get a crummy commercial. Turns out, folks aren’t even giving Neighbors enough money to keep the best players he already had on the roster.

That’s what it appears to be, anyway, after Taliah Scott, Saylor Poffenbarger and, most recently, Samara Spencer all hit the transfer portal this offseason. Poffenbarger will be at her third school, Maryland, after heading back to her home state to play for its flagship school. Spencer, who entered just Wednesday per reports, is from Florida, but no possible destinations have come up yet. 

Scott is the player, though, who most personifies the theory. Also a Florida native, Scott didn’t transfer back home. She landed at Auburn, a school with less success than Arkansas over most of the last decade in the sport. And when she landed at Auburn, one of the photos used in hailing her arrival was not short on subtlety:

Nor did one of her most recent TikTok posts pull any punches:

That’s not exactly what you’d call “leaving the earth unsalted.”

In fairness, Arkansas didn’t exactly light it up with a core of that trio, along with Makayla Daniels and two former McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster in Maryam Dauda and Jersey Wolfenbarger (who also transferred after sitting out last year). 

To some – including this writer – it’s a modest surprise the Razorbacks have stuck with him into the offseason. In Neighbors’ seven years at the helm, Arkansas has made two of a possible six NCAA Tournaments. That’s rough, frankly, and in an SEC that isn’t the same as it was even 10 years ago. Sure, South Carolina and LSU are national powerhouses, but for a good chunk of the 2023-24 season, they were the only two ranked teams in the whole league.

The NIL Challenge for Mike Neighbors

So what gives? Well, it’s Arkansas, frankly. The state of, I mean. Not the University of. We aren’t exactly the hippest when it comes to gender equality and even regular rights are trampled on in the Natural State

As great as it would be to have Arkansas women’s basketball become Arkansas men’s basketball, or Iowa women’s basketball, or, apparently, even just Auburn women’s basketball, it doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon. During Razorbacks’ home games, the lower bowl, which is all that is opened for such, is only about half full. Not exactly numbers conducive to an influx of dollars to keep players satisfied.

Instead, football and men’s basketball have an outsize focus. In the Neighbors era, the greatest women’s Arkansas basketball can hope to achieve, what with administration and donors largely ignoring it, is something close to what Courtney Deifel has wrought with softball. Ethan Westerman at Whole Hog Sports had a nice piece about how Razorbacks softball has gone from a void on the Arkansas athletics map to an easy seller

Bogle Park is almost always sold out and has been called one of the better parks in the sport (though, let’s be honest, an upgrade is due). Bud Walton Arena is in even worse need of improvement. Nary a soul is headed to BWA to watch Arkansas women’s basketball for the atmosphere.

Maybe the powers-that-be are waiting to dedicate a newfound urgency toward the program after Neighbors goes bye-bye. But that’s a strange tact. He’s all but a lame-duck as it is, what with the bulk of his roster exiting and the players he has (as of Thursday) brought in to replace them not coming near in terms of overall talent. 

Does Hunter Yurachek believe a ‘one-more-year’ approach will actually yield something positive? More likely that so much money has been sunk elsewhere that Arkansas can’t afford to fire Neighbors and hire a replacement of higher caliber right now. 

Plenty of blame exists to go around. Neighbors’ lack of advancement has only bit him in the behind as he appears to have squandered some of the most talented players the school has ever had, really. In an era in which the portal allows for such players to exit, his dynamite recruiting skills – because he is a dynamite recruiter of high-schoolers – are less viable if the players realize they don’t dig the scene when they get to Fayetteville. 

But Yurachek and the donor class carry some of the weight, too. It doesn’t feel like Arkansas has much of a plan with the sport of women’s basketball and no plan means no future. No future means, well, the same for lots of women in the Natural State, sadly.


Starting at the 40:15 mark in the the video below from before Calipari’s hire, Mike Irwin talks about lack of NIL funds as a reason retaining Mike Neighbors:

YouTube video
YouTube video


More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

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