In the end, only the head coach will be blamed.
Yes, this season, guard B.J. Young at times resembled an over-caffeinated rickshaw driver careening into dense traffic without the slightest intention of bringing anyone aboard. Sure, last offseason the accuracy of Mardracus Wade’s three-point shot apparently learned how to ski downhill. And yes, Marshawn Powell at times mightily struggled with free throw shooting. Especially in the 7-15 clunker he threw up two weeks ago in a 72-75 loss to Vanderbilt.
It was the Hogs’ fifth consecutive opening game game loss in the SEC Tournament, marking the fifth consecutive year Arkansas missed out on the NCAA Tournament and the 16th straight season without an NIT Tournament berth.
It no longer matters how Arkansas entered this pit of gloom. All fans want to know is how quickly the program will get out of it. And, more importantly, how quickly the program will get back to the top.
Three years from now, fans won’t get hung up on any one player’s lack of court vision or another player’s season of erratic shooting. The fans won’t even care if the Hogs win a few more games in the SEC Tournament and annually start playing in a round or two of an NCAA Tournament.
They will be looking at the big picture.
In 17 years as an assistant under Nolan Richardson, Mike Anderson learned how to build programs that could consistently beat the nation’s best teams – on any court. He learned what kind of talent and basketball IQ is necessary to build a program that can make three Final Fours, what kind of cold-blooded killer instinct it takes to win a title.
How well Anderson applies these lessons and how close he gets to achieving the benchmarks of success that Richardson set will ultimately determine Anderson’s legacy. Will he always be seen as Richardson’s chief lieutenant/heir apparent, or will he be seen as a giant in his own right?
The answer will become clearer in the coming years. Arkansas’ program will either flourish as it makes deeper and deeper runs in the postseason, or it will hang around 20 wins per season – good enough to sneak into an NCAA Tournament, but not good enough to make any noise there. In short, no better than the best teams of Stan Heath and John Pelphrey.
We can’t see into the future, but we can look into the past to get a sense of whether the Hogs are off track or not.
One way to do this is to compare Anderson’s first two years as Arkansas head coach with Richardson’s first two seasons. Turns out, so far, he’s doing better. Neither coach made the NCAA tourney in Years One or Two, but Anderson’s overall 37-27 record is superior to Richardson’s 31-30.
For perspective, it also helps to realize there have been plenty other coaches with “heir apparent” predicaments like Anderson. That is, former assistant coaches under national title-winning coaches who succeeded their mentors as head coaches.
In Part 2 of this post, I have gathered “legend-successor” combos whose situations most resemble Arkansas’. I wasn’t interested in coaches at perpetual powerhouse programs with three or more titles – e.g. North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana. In programs of this caliber, it is harder to distinguish the impact of a coach from the appeal of the program brand itself, especially when it comes to landing elite recruits.
I was more interested in programs that, like Arkansas, have made a splash on the national scene (by winning a title or two) but can’t count on the school name itself to always bring in the best players. These programs don’t easily recover from bad apple hires.
Each successor, of course, enters a different scenario. Some inherit really good teams while taking the baton directly from their mentors . Others, like Anderson or UNLV’s Dave Rice, leave the program and coach elsewhere for a few years before returning.
When a successor doesn’t inherit a championship-caliber program, the directive for the first couple seasons is clear: establish winning habits, show a little improvement, recruit the kind of players to fit your system.
At the same time, fans are impatient. They want the good times they remember during the legend’s best years, yet don’t want to slog through the years of mediocre results to get back there.
But hardly any college coach starts out with an absolute bang. Even the ones who become legends.
Nolan Richardson (1985-2002)
1985-86: 12-16, 4-12
1986-87: 19-14, 8-8
Mike Anderson (assistant 1985-2002)
2011-12: 18-14, 6-10
2012-13: 19-13, 10-8
* Simple Rating System – a rating from sports-reference.com that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The higher the number, the better the team.
This post continues here.
The above was published in SYNC magazine