PINE BLUFF — “A couple of plays away from a special year” is a common theme of Mike Anderson’s in his speaking engagements and press conferences.
But after nearly leading Arkansas back to NCAA tournament and coupling key recruits with an experienced team, he has given the Razorback faithful hope that his fourth year at the helm of the men’s basketball program is the charm.
“I said it when I first came back here (to Arkansas) — there’s hope,” Anderson said during his speech to the Pine Bluff Razorback Club on Monday. “After three years, I hope you guys see the hope.”
Anderson drew laughter with the statement and he thinks he can make more smiles with next season’s team. He made some noise last week by landing junior-college standout guard Jabril Durham.
“I think he’s going to be an excellent player,” Anderson said. “More importantly, he’s a mature guy. He’s a junior-college kid, so he’s hungry. A kid of character, but more importantly, I think he fits in with what we’re doing. We’re trying to find some guards who can create.”
Durham, who spent this past season at Seminole (Okla.) State College after a year at NAIA Lubbock Christian, was the only player in NJCAA Division I to rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring and assists. He averaged 21.2 points and 6.7 assists.
Durham is the fourth member of the signing class for 2014-15, joining North Little Rock’s Anton Beard, Forrest City’s Trey Thompson and Arlington, Texas’ Nick Baab.
“We’re going to build on what we did this year,” Anderson said. “I thought we were a couple of plays from having a really special year. So, with the core we have coming back … and then you tack on Anton Beard, Jabril Durham, and a young man sitting out, (West Virginia transfer) Keaton Miles, we feel we have the personnel now to put out an even better team than we had this year.”
After three seasons and one postseason appearance, Anderson might be feeling some pressure going into next November. But the coach seems to embrace it.
“We’re going to have fun and pressure,” Anderson said. “I just think we have the right guys in place. In anything you do, you have to go through some things. Our guys experienced some tough losses. We turned that around and had some very good wins. The thing I was more proud of our guys (about) was that they stuck together.”
The Razorbacks, who finished 22-12, seemingly were on a path to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008 with eight wins in nine games. That was until an 83-58 loss to Alabama in the regular-season finale and a 71-69 loss to South Carolina in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Arkansas, which beat Indiana State and lost to California in the National Invitation Tournament, missed out on carrying an SEC flag that arrived at the NCAA Final Four with semifinalist Florida and runner-up Kentucky. Cuonzo Martin led Tennessee to the Sweet 16 before leaving the Volunteers for Cal.
“The unfortunate thing is that the talking media, the talking heads, they put a lot of what was going to take place in our conference in our nonconference schedule,” Anderson said. “We had some teams that didn’t play as well in conference and nonconference as they should have. Once you get into conference play, a lot of teams beat up on each other, and I thought the proof is in the pudding.
“Just think, we had three teams to get into the tournament, and they did really, really well.”
Anderson feels good about his 2014-15 team’s chances at the NCAAs, but he said consistency in the Hogs’ play will be key.
“And how do you build consistency? Getting the experience,” Anderson said. “Going through some things. And our guys went through some things. I think that’s going to pay off this year.”