That Whole “Nice Mike” Anderson/Neighbors Similarity Thing Just Went Off the Rails a Bit

Mike Anderson, Mike Neighbors, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Considering their deep ties to Arkansas basketball and the fact they share the same first name, the comparisons between Mike Anderson and Mike Neighbors are only natural.

Both enjoyed success at prior stops — Anderson making the Elite Eight at Missouri and Neighbors taking Washington to the Final Four — and were viewed as home run hires for the Razorbacks, only to struggle to recreate that success in Fayetteville.

Despite having some very good teams and great individual players, Anderson never made it to the second weekend of the Big Dance in eight seasons at Arkansas. Neighbors, now seven years into his tenure, is still searching for his first NCAA Tournament win at his alma mater.

Anderson was a top assistant under Nolan Richardson when the Razorbacks won it all in 1994 and Neighbors is a Greenwood native who went to school at Arkansas and got his start in the high school ranks.

Generally speaking, both are well-respected and likable coaches, but that didn’t/hasn’t shielded them from feeling heat from fans — especially when the UA has hyped up certain statistics like Anderson never having a losing season and Neighbors making the postseason six straight years.

All of that has led to some drawing the conclusion that Neighbors is destined to suffer the same fate as Anderson.

Something unexpected, though, happened when he met with reporters for more than 44 minutes as the women’s Arkansas basketball team prepares for a first-round matchup with Tulsa in the inaugural WBIT at 6:30 p.m. CT Thursday: Neighbors took a sharp turn from the Anderson timeline.

Sure, there was some discussion of the Golden Hurricane and the challenge of facing their electric duo of Temira Poindexter (21.1 ppg) and Melanie Crawford (19.1 ppg), but a lot of the talk centered on the transfer portal and the future of the program.

To his credit, Neighbors spoke openly of mistakes he made when constructing his roster last offseason and how he planned to correct them this time around. That’s an important distinction because the lack of a clear plan for pivoting into a new direction is ultimately what cost Anderson his job.

It was after Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek met with Anderson following the Razorbacks’ loss to Indiana in the 2019 NIT that he made the difficult decision to move on and eventually hire Eric Musselman.

“We had success, but we did not have the level of success I believe we could have here at the University of Arkansas,” Yurachek told reporters in April 2019. “I think just a little bit more of a vision for our program moving forward may have helped.”

In his comments to the media Wednesday morning, Neighbors gave a sneak-peak of the vision he will likely convey to Yurachek when the Razorbacks’ run in the WBIT ends.

Mike Neighbors’ Plan

In early February, Arkansas was actually in decent shape when it came to its NCAA Tournament resume. It was 17-7 overall and 5-4 in SEC play when it went to Florida on Feb. 8.

However, the Razorbacks lost that game despite leading by 10 entering the third quarter. That started a 1-7 skid, including five straight losses to end the season, which knocked them off the bubble. Had Neighbors’ squad won just a couple of those games, it would have had a case to be included in the field of 68.

It was a disappointing finish to a season in which Arkansas was picked to finish sixth in the SEC by the media and seventh by the coaches — both of which would have likely been enough to return to the Big Dance.

Instead, Neighbors was left to question where it went wrong and he eventually came to a conclusion that may sound familiar to those who followed the men’s team this year.

“Another mistake I made was I just started collecting talent and I didn’t really spend a lot of time to see if they fit together,” Neighbors said. “Really good pieces. Traditionally I’ve been a pretty good puzzle maker, fitting them together. That was a little harder this year, so we are spending a lot more time to make sure these pieces fit together rather than just amass talent.”

Just how many new pieces that is remains to be seen. With the NCAA now giving immediate eligibility to multi-time transfers, Neighbors said he was treating it as though he needed to fill all 15 scholarships, even though only one player — Makayla Daniels — had exhausted her eligibility.

Leading scorer Taliah Scott and leading rebounder Saylor Poffenbarger have already entered the transfer portal — neither of which blindsided him — and they likely won’t be the only ones. The Razorbacks have signed only two high school prospects in the 2024 class, but it sounds like the rest of the newcomers will come from elsewhere.

Neighbors said he’d be attending the JUCO women’s basketball tournament in Casper, Wyo., for some in-person scouting, an event he hasn’t been to in 12 years, but perhaps the biggest change in his philosophy is with the transfer portal.

He hasn’t been afraid to use it in the past, bringing in talented players like Chelsea Dungee (Oklahoma), Amber Ramirez (TCU), Destiny Slocum (Oregon State), Sasha Goforth (Oregon State) and Poffenbarger (UConn), but he notably didn’t pursue any transfers last offseason.

“I chose not to use it last year,” Neighbors said. “I chose to trust the kids that we had coming back. I chose to trust that they were going to be the ones that wanted to be developed and were going to be with us. We didn’t need it last year. We’re obviously going to need it this year.”

That’s a move Neighbors has reflected on quite a bit and it’s not a surprise that he’s changed his tone heading into this offseason.

“It’s be easy to point fingers and believe me, I’ve looked in the mirror very hard about that,” Neighbors said. “Maybe I should have gone into the portal for a player or two last year. Maybe I should have. I don’t know. We can debate that.”

That kind of self-evaluation has led to Neighbors being more open to change than ever before in his career. He even mentioned he was open to changing his system — something Mike Anderson likely never would have even considered with his “Fastest 40” style.

Before any of that happens, though, Neighbors first has to finalize his roster. He said he’s taking a page out of Eric Musselman’s playbook and casting a wide net. If a player put up big numbers at a smaller school, he and his staff will evaluate her. Likewise if a player is 6-foot-4 or taller.

Neighbors’ voice was a bit hoarse when talking to reporters and he blamed it on all of the phone calls he’s had not only with players, but their coaches and other people associated with him.

While he’s not a big fan of when the transfer portal window opens, Neighbors isn’t just a grumpy 54-year-old coach who wants to go back to the old days, either. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“I’m excited about all of it,” Neighbors said. “I love the transfer portal. I think it’s a valuable tool, I think it’s important, I’m glad we have it, but we’re all dealing with the newness of it still. I like rollercoasters and not merry-go-rounds. This is certainly going to be a rollercoaster for the next 6-8 weeks.”

Up Next for Arkansas Basketball

Making it even more of a rollercoaster is the timing issue Mike Neighbors isn’t particularly fond of, as the transfer portal opened just after the release of postseason brackets.

The Razorbacks had no shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but did have a strong enough resume to earn an at-large bid in the inaugural WBIT, which is a 32-team event owned and operated by the NCAA similar to the men’s NIT.

The WNIT is still its own entity and a pay-to-play event that would have cost the UA money, so Arkansas would have declined an invitation to it, but it jumped at the opportunity to play in the WBIT, which is fully funded by the NCAA.

“Our team (is) obviously disappointed not to be back in the NCAA Tournament, but live in reality world enough — again, with the historical history of our specific sport at our specific university — that going to the WBIT is not… We’re not going to let anybody try to frown upon that,” Neighbors said. “It’s too big of a deal.”

With a looming matchup against Tulsa, the AAC’s regular-season champion which went 23-9 overall and 13-5 in conference play, Neighbors said he’s splitting his time 50/50 between getting his current team ready for the WBIT and building next year’s roster.

As for the game itself, it features two stylistically similar teams — so much so that Neighbors scheduled a closed-door scrimmage with the Golden Hurricane before the season.

Tulsa and Arkansas each make 8.8 three-pointers per game, which is tied for 14th nationally, albeit Tulsa does it at a higher clip (33.3% vs. 30.0%).

More than half of the Golden Hurricane’s attempts from deep have been from the aforementioned duo of Temira Poindexter and Melanie Crawford, but Arkansas native Mady Cartwright — a freshman from Neighbors’ hometown of Greenwood — is another threat from beyond the arc.

Regardless of how far the Razorbacks make it in the WBIT, though, it won’t change the fact that Neighbors has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game, which is why a chunk of the fanbase wouldn’t mind a change in leadership — something he fully understands.

“Well, you embrace it,” Neighbors said. “I mean, you have to. That means there’s high demand. I’m glad that we have people that demand a great product. I’ve said it before: If we’re going to demand equal treatment, we need to demand equal treatment. And that’s fine.”

Similar to Mike Anderson, he is still really well liked by a majority of the fan base, even those who want to move on. The hope from those fans and Neighbors alike is that Hunter Yurachek will see the changes he’s making to the program and give him another year to right the ship.

Certainly no one wants that to happen more than the Greenwood native himself.

“I knew when I took this job — I’m a Razorback fan,” Neighbors said. “I’ve been a Razorback fan for 55 years. I get it. It’s okay. I embrace our passionate fans that demand a lot out of their sport. They want to be proud and we’re here to make them proud.”


UPDATE: In response to this article, Arkansas basketball color commentator Matt Zimmerman chimed in to give his two cents. Zimmerman, who coached under Mike Anderson at Missouri and Arkansas, emphasized that Anderson’s regular season accomplishments were impressive despite the lack of a deep NCAA Tournament run. Specifically, Anderson’s Razorback teams had the third-most wins among SEC teams while he was on the Hill:

If you enjoyed the above, you’ll love the below:

Starting at 3:00 below, yet another Mike explains why he thinks NIL played a role in Neighbors’ staying and Taliah Scott leaving:

YouTube video

Watch the full Mike Neighbors press conference here:

YouTube video

More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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