Putting a Hard Stop to Talk of Mike Neighbors’ So-Called “Softness”

Mike Neighbors, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Arkansas men’s basketball is not Arkansas women’s basketball. They may have had eerily similar seasons this year, but the standards and expectations are not, and should not be, the same. 

Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks are 17-7 and 6-5 in the SEC after Tuesday night’s win over Kentucky on the road. Mike Neighbors’ Razorbacks are 18-8 and 5-6 in the SEC after Thursday’s loss to Vanderbilt. Both teams are – as of Friday afternoon – projected to be in the NCAA Tournament when March arrives.

It’s weird how close they are on paper. The differences, however, are significant and twofold, though one is a bit more significant than the other and subject to change in the short-term. The long-term is where we’re more interested.

Mike Neighbors on the Hot Seat?

See, Neighbors had, apparently, come under a bit of heat heading into Sunday’s game against the Tigers. Arkansas had lost four straight games after a lights-out start that saw the Hogs begin 5-1 in perhaps the best women’s college basketball conference in the country. And while a victory over Auburn on Sunday relieved some of the pressure, the loss to Vandy despite Makayla Daniels’ season-high 31 points just re-established it. Some are still questioning the upside of the Neighbors era. One comparison bandied about: Neighbors is essentially the equivalent of Mike Anderson.

It was said as a disparagement. And it makes no sense as such.

Neighbors’ team was predicted to finish fourth in the SEC by the league’s media and fifth in the SEC by the league’s coaches. They were fourth when they were 4-1, even, as South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU sat undefeated. Five games later, Arkansas is seventh in the SEC. In other words, the Razorbacks are more or less exactly where they were picked to be.

Three of those losses during the four-game streak came to two of those powerhouses. South Carolina absolutely blasted the Razorbacks, which was to be expected considering the defending champs are a clear No. 1 team in the nation. LSU, which is No. 3 in the country, beat Arkansas by a mere three points. In Baton Rouge, no less. Those were the first two. The next game came against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It was a three-point loss. And, finally, Arkansas fell to Ole Miss by – wait for it – three points.

The Razorbacks led for a healthy chunk of the game and would have won had the Rebels not made a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime. The Rebels, by the way, are the team immediately after the Gamecocks, Tigers and Volunteers in the SEC standings. Arkansas wasn’t exactly falling against the slouches of the conference.

So why the heat? No, that’s a serious question. Why the apparent pressure on Neighbors?

The Criticism of Neighbors

Now, to be clear, that pressure is not something this writer has heard or seen first-hand. The notion of the pressure came from some fans discussed by Pig Trail Nation personality Mike Irwin, a man who has far more eyes and ears to the ground than I do. 

The reason for that pressure was, according to Irwin, that Neighbors may be too soft. The women’s coach isn’t a screamer. His press conferences are mostly staid affairs regardless whether they follow wins or losses. Apparently, that’s a problem for some. It’s hard to imagine the kind of person who would find that a problem, though. Anger has no correlation with ability. Blowing up after a loss or, heck, even just speaking passionately after a loss isn’t required. 

But the notion also somewhat ties back to what Neighbors said back in 2019 shortly after, in his first season as Arkansas coach, the Razorbacks returned to Fayetteville following a dynamite run in the SEC Tournament after a mediocre regular season. Neighbors said, “You don’t have to win a championship to be a champion here.”

The remarks rubbed some the wrong way at the end. I have to imagine the folks who took issue with that sentence are the same who now are suggesting he – or his teams, it’s unclear which – are too soft. But he isn’t wrong.

Of the last 15 national champions in the women’s game, only seven different teams have won the title. Among those 30 teams to play in the game, only six “new” teams were in the mix. That’s a grand total of 13 different teams who have played in the women’s college basketball national championship in 15 years.

The 21st century standard of Arkansas men’s basketball has been clearly established under coach Eric Musselman. Perhaps the Razorbacks cannot be expected to make the Elite Eight literally every season like they have the last two. But it’s easier in the men’s game, especially now in the era of the transfer portal, to make a run toward the top. Musselman’s success isn’t proof of that theory, just evidence toward it.

Now, if Neighbors and the Razorbacks keep losing games like they did on Thursday, to teams with one win in league play, then, yes, absolutely, the heat will – and should – crank up. Until (or unless) that happens, however, enjoy another NCAA Tournament appearance and a solid standing in one of the best conferences in the country.

More from Irwin on Mike Neighbors at the 41:10 mark here:

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