“You don’t have to win a championship to be a champion here”—Mike Neighbors

Mike Neighbors

Men’s basketball and women’s basketball shares much common ground, but one of the places the games go their separate ways is coach and player psychology. Female basketball players are much less likely to talk about their own achievements without also talking about how important their teammates are.

Another key difference: How much each side embraces the idea of the “moral victory.” I can’t think of one men’s basketball coach who openly embraces the idea at the Division I level. To Mike Anderson, a close loss to Texas Tech or Kentucky is just that—a close loss. Sure, there are some positives coming out of those games, but they count all the same when it comes to the ultimate objective of making the NCAA Tournament.

The women’s coach can go about it a different way. This became super clear on Sunday night when Mike Neighbors returned to Fayetteville with his Razorback women’s basketball squad, the feel-good story of the SEC Tournament. Despite a poor regular season finish, the Hogs had just ripped through the first three games of the tourney, knocking off Top 16 teams in South Carolina (winners of four SEC tournaments in a row) and Texas A&M.

Yes, they got stomped in the Finals against No. 5 Mississippi State. But that didn’t stop Razorback fans from flocking out to Drake Field airport to welcome the team home when it returned to Fayetteville. During an interview, Mike Neighbors, ever the recruiter, turned the narrative of the Cinderella run and loss into a recruiting pitch.

Neighbors emphasized that he tells recruits: “If you come and you give it everything you got — which we obviously did, we left every bit of it out there — these fans will recognize that.”

He added: “You don’t have to win a championship to be a champion here. And when we do, it’ll be that much more special. That’s what separates this from every other school I’ve ever been associated with.”

Neighbors and his players of course want to win conference and national championships. But his quote reminds us that they are not hell-bent on those goals to the detriment of the process. That is, they also put a high priority on the process of playing well and enjoying the community celebration that comes as a reward for playing well—regardless of whether they win a title or come up short.

The men’s game is different in that a coach like Anderson would never say this after an SEC Championship Game loss. Even if he believes it, he can’t say it publicly without getting major criticism. Part of this is historic context and expectations. The men’s program has already played in plenty SEC tourney title games, while this was the first-ever appearance for the women. Likewise, you would never hear this kind of quote coming from Holly Warlick, the head coach of Tennessee women’s basketball (a traditional powerhouse).

Plus, overall, there is a greater cultural stereotype against embracing “moral victories” in men’s sports than there is in women’s sports.

Mike Neighbors’ quote in this specific context, after losing in a conference tourney finals, reminds us of how different the two sports are. But if the Arkansas men made a Final Four run, yet lost in the national semifinals, expect that a major celebration (think Dickson Street parade) would be held for them nonetheless.

No one would think twice about the Razorback players and coaches glorying in the moment in that scenario. To the majority of Razorback fans, who are so thirsty for success after 23 years without a Sweet Sixteen appearance, these Final Four Hogs would qualify as “champions” without a championship.

Our culture just wouldn’t allow Mike Anderson to say that out loud.

More from Mike Neighbors’ interview after the SEC Tournament

On the difference between the team now and at the end of a losing streak of eight of nine regular season games:

“We got them their sense of desperation back. I stripped them of that inadvertently. I didn’t realize it until it was too late.

“When we started talking about getting that 16th win and getting postseason eligible. There was as a sense of ‘OK, we’re postseason eligible. I forgot to tell them there’s a difference between the postseasons.”

On the advantage of becoming a Cinderella story:

“We won over every other fan base after beating them. Although South Carolina had a huge crowd, after beating them a lot of those guys were pulling for us. A&M fans, they pulled for us. That doesn’t happen unless your players are real and genuine. [The fans] can see through B.S. and those fans were on our side.”

On Arkansas’ chances of going to the NCAA Tournament heading into the SEC Tournament:

When we got on the plane, outside of winning the [SEC tourney] championship, we had a 0% chance of going — there was not a resume. I wouldn’t have taken on the prosecuting attorney’s role in that case. Right now we’ve got a resume you can defend… Now, with two Top 25 wins — two top 16 wins — we’re gonna stack up with a lot of people.”

On what to do during the full week of waiting until the March Madness field is announced:

“Yeah, it’s killer. You plan at-home visits. We go in and do home visits, we’ll stay on the road. There will be a lot of phone calls being made. The Power 5 league tournaments are over, so I’ve got probably 25 or 30 friends that I talk to who also follow this. We’ve all got our own opinions, so we’ll all bounce those off each other.”

“We’re all certified bracketologists. It’s a fun week.”

Watch the Mike Neighbors interview in its entirety below:

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