FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Anderson received a standing ovation from the Arkansas crowd during the 2007-08 season, when the former Razorbacks assistant brought his Missouri team into Bud Walton Arena to play a nonconference game.
It’s safe to say his return trip to Columbia, Mo., with the Razorbacks won’t be as warm in Mizzou Arena tonight. In fact, Arkansas guard BJ Young has a pretty good idea of what type of reception is awaiting Anderson’s basketball program.
“We know they’re going to boo,” Young said. “We know it’s coming.”
Anderson’s much-anticipated trip back to face his former program has arrived as the Razorbacks (18-11, 9-7 in Southeastern Conference) play Missouri (21-8, 10-6) at 6 p.m. Part of the shine has worn off the storyline after the teams met in Fayetteville — a 73-71 Arkansas win — in mid-February. But it won’t ease the vitriol from much of the Missouri fanbase, which has been waiting for Anderson’s return since the SEC schedule was released in the offseason.
So, deep down, Anderson realizes what’s coming when he walks onto the court. He expects to hear “boo birds” from the vocal group not happy about his departure. But the coach tried to look at the other side when asked about his return Monday, saying there were “a lot of great memories” in his time on the Missouri sideline.
“I think the fans that know me and know my staff, the things that we walked into and witnessed what took place – there was no passion, at least about basketball anyway,” Anderson said. “Now the passion is back and even as I left there, there is passion. When you ask me about the reaction, I don’t have any idea, but the people that know me and know what we did and what we tried to do.”
Anderson did help restore a program mired in Quin Snyder’s NCAA mess over five seasons. He guided the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament three times, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2009. Anderson also played a hand in helping them become one of the most dominant home teams in college basketball (83-4 since 2008-09).
But then there’s the rest the well-known story: Anderson left Missouri after the 2010-11 season, which ended in disappointment because of five losses in the final six games. He headed south to Arkansas for his dream job, returning to the program where he spent 17 years as an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff.
Anderson said Monday it was one of the toughest decisions of his life. He was close to his players and felt there was Final Four talent returning to Missouri. The senior-heavy group returned to win 30 games, but the promising year was cut shot by a loss in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament under coach Frank Haith.
“That was Year Six and the timing seemed like the perfect storm,” said Anderson, who added he and Haith have spoken about what the coach inherited. “That was a team that probably could have contended for a Final Four. I really thought that.”
Anderson is now trying to guide the Razorbacks into the postseason for the first time since 2008. Their hopes of climbing into the NCAA Tournament field appear slim because of a 1-10 record outside of the state, but knocking off the Tigers in Mizzou Arena would at least raise eyebrows the final week of the regular season.
Missouri has been impressive in going 18-0 at home this season. And the Tigers, who will honor seniors Laurence Bowers, Keion Bell and Alex Oriakhi before tonight’s game, would love nothing more than to cap their first perfect home record since Anderson’s 2008-09 team with a win against the Razorbacks.
“It would just be awesome,” Haith said Monday. “It would tell you how great the players we have are, and how great our fan base has been. … We’ve got really good players, I believe that, and we’ve got a great fanbase that’s been there every night.”
“Over the last two years it’s been tremendous, and I’m proud to be at a place where there’s such great passion and we have that kind of home-court advantage.”
Anderson knows all about it. He said the Tigers “believe in that arena.”
But the Razorbacks also understand they’ll have to find a way to break through Missouri’s aura of invincibility — and the emotions surrounding Anderson’s return to Mizzou Arena — in their final opportunity to earn a road win.
“It’s a big moment for the team, a big moment for the coaching staff and the whole Arkansas organization,” said Young, a St. Louis native who is returning to his home state to play tonight. “It will be fun to try to go in there and beat them again.”
Said forward Coty Clarke: “They’re waiting on us.”
The home crowd, especially, will be waiting for Anderson. But the coach said he’s fine with whatever reception he receives in his return to Missouri.
His only concern is finding a way for his team to put together its best road performance to date in a game that could be critical to Arkansas’ postseason hopes.
“As I’ve said before, it’s not about Mike Anderson and Missouri,” Anderson said. “It’s Arkansas vs. Missouri. It’s an SEC game. It’s an important game. So it should be a great atmosphere I’m sure.”
Arkansas (18-11, 9-7 in SEC) at Missouri (21-8, 10-6 in SEC)
When: Tonight at 6 p.m.
Where: Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Satellite: Sirus 92, XM 199
Series: Arkansas leads 20-18
Last Meeting: Arkansas 73, Missouri 71 on 2/17/13
Coaches: Arkansas — Mike Anderson (36-25 in second season); Missouri — Frank Haith (51-12 in second season)
Projected Lineups: Arkansas — F Coty Clarke (6-7, Jr., 7.5 ppg), F Marshawn Powell (6-7, Jr. 14.9 ppg), G BJ Young (6-3, So., 15.2 ppg), G Fred Gulley (6-1, Jr., 1.5 ppg), G Mardracus Wade (6-2, Jr., 6.5 ppg); Missouri — C Alex Oriakhi (6-9, Sr., 11.1 ppg), F Laurence Bowers (6-8, Sr., 14.2 ppg), G Phil Pressey (5-11, Jr., 12.1 ppg), G Keion Bell (6-4, Sr., 11.9 ppg), G Jabari Brown (6-5, So., 14.0 ppg)