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Q and A with Arkansas Fight about new St. John’s coach Mike Anderson

A check in with those who have followed Anderson closely, on recruiting, criticism & more.

Arkansas v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Last week, when the Mike Anderson whirlwind courtship popped up, we got an email from out buddies over at Arkansas Fight, who cover Arkansas sports here on SB Nation, and they offered to pass along some more insight on Mike Anderson.

Now that we have had a weekend to digest the news, and as we wait to hear about assistant coaches, we will print the interview we did with Adam, and thank him for his take. (Also, we’re going to borrow some of the tempo-neutral wrinkles they use in their analyses.)

Follow them at Arkansas Fight or Arkansas Fight on Twitter.

Q || Mike Anderson has a rich history with Arkansas, like almost a home town hero. Take us back to why Arkansas fans were excited to bring him in...

Arkansas isn’t a blue blood like Kentucky or Duke, but it basically acted like one from 1974 to 2002 during the Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson years. Four Final Fours, a national championship, and a couple other Elite Eights and Sweet 16s.

Mike Anderson was an assistant under Nolan for 17 years, and left when things turned ugly and the Richardson era ended in 2002. Arkansas then went through a “lost decade”, spending the next nine years in the bottom half of the SEC under coaches Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, who had no ties to the program.

Anderson’s hiring was supposed to be a restoration. Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” scheme was built around a frenetic pressure defense and aggressive, fast-break offense. Bringing that back really got fans fired up.

Q || How did the relationship go sour with respect to expectations? Was there anything Razorback fans were warned about that came true?

Anderson did a fine job, going 78-64 in SEC play and re-establishing the Hogs as one of the stronger programs in the SEC.

But he lost a lot of goodwill by taking too long (four years) to reach his first NCAA Tournament and then never reaching a Sweet 16. The tournament itself is mostly a crapshoot, but his teams were never (seeded) favorites to reach the Sweet 16.

Combine that with the fact that the rest of the SEC has re-committed to basketball, making major hires and bringing in big-time recruiting classes, and it had become apparent that Anderson had reached his peak in Fayetteville.

Q || Is Anderson affable? How is he with the community and donors? Are there any prickly donors he did not get along with?

He’s incredibly easy-going and likable. I briefly worked in sports media a few years ago, so I’ve spent some time with him in the press room, and he’s very well-liked by media members and people close to the program.

That said, this is Arkansas media we’re talking about. New York may be a different game. But unless he doesn’t win, he’s not going to find another way to get people mad at him.

Q || Does he recruit well? Creatively? Is he a presence at summer league events and in high schools of prospects, or does he have a reputation of being casual in recruiting?

His Arkansas recruiting classes were highly-ranked, but that’s largely because Arkansas high school basketball punches well above its weight, producing at least one, and usually two, four-star recruits per year.

The U of A basically runs the state, so Anderson had a huge advantage in recruiting each of those kids.

Even then, he lost Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk to Kentucky. He only signed a couple of four-stars from outside Arkansas, and the highest-ranked (Moses Kingsley in 2013) was from West Virginia but played for an Arkansas AAU club.

So I don’t know that I’d call him a great recruiter. He’s active on the AAU circuit and he had a ton of success with junior college prospects (almost all of them worked out), but I think he definitely needs an ace recruiter with St. John’s or New York ties.

Q || What are the criticisms of Anderson’s teams?

The biggest criticism is that they can be out-schemed.

It’s pretty evident that his teams do very little to tailor a strategy to their opponent. They just go out and play ball. That puts a pretty hard cap on how many games they can win, especially at a school where expectations are high and every opponent takes them seriously.

In fact, the rumor here in Fayetteville is that Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek didn’t plan to fire Anderson, but decided to after an end-of-season meeting when Anderson seemed completely unprepared for questions about the program’s future.

The fact that Arkansas eventually hired Eric Musselman - an NBA guy who does extensive film study and analysis for everything - suggests there may be some truth to that.

Another criticism of all fast-paced teams is that they can play really ugly when forced into a half-court game.

Anderson’s teams gradually got better at half-court offense, but St. John’s fans should be prepared for a lot of games that are downright ugly and slow for 2/3rds of the game, but just a few exciting fast breaks are enough to carry the day.

The highlight reel will look great, but it will feel like a bad comedy movie that puts ALL of its jokes in the trailer.

Q || What’s Mike Anderson’s on-court demeanor?

He’s very calm on the floor. Razorback fans occasionally criticized him for not showing more fire. It often likes he’s just clapping his hands and telling his players to play harder. He lets his players play, which is in line with overall approach to the game.

That said, not overthinking things can be helpful, and when he has veteran guards, his teams are often very good in close games.

From 2017 to the early part of 2019, Arkansas won 41 consecutive games when leading at halftime. His three tournament teams (2015, 2017, and 2018) went 25-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer.

Q || Why would he come to New York to coach?

I really don’t know.

He grew up in Birmingham, played in Tulsa, and coached most of his career in Fayetteville, so I had him pegged for a job in a large Southern city. Maybe Georgia State or something. Southern Miss was another one I thought of.

So why St. John’s?

Maybe he’s got a little bit of fire left and didn’t want to drop down to a mid-major. If so, that’s good news for you guys, obviously, since he’ll have a large chip on his shoulder.

Q || Any parting words or good stories about Mike Anderson and his tenure?

I would just say that Arkansas fans really like this guy and are cheering for him.

It was time to move on at Arkansas, but we all want him to do well at St. John’s. He runs a clean program - very important given the ongoing shoe scandal - and his players get good grades, graduate, and generally stay out of trouble. If things are in turmoil, he’s the guy to calm everything down.

His ceiling is pretty low, but his floor is pretty high because his teams are built around athletism and will always be able to “out-athlete” about half of their opponents. That’s why he’s never had a losing season.