January 22, 2023
After a gritty performance against LSU, Arkansas could be at a turning point
Razorbacks? Hogs? Or golden retrievers?
For Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors, Arkansas is more than just his team; it’s his home. Born and raised in the Natural State, Neighbors is a homegrown Razorbacks fan and now leading in his seventh year at the helm of their women’s basketball squad. And although this program once saw great success under the legendary Gary Blair, Neighbors could be taking the team to new heights.
In the SEC preseason media poll, Arkansas ranked fourth, the team’s highest ranking since 1996. In fact, Neighbors told the media that he was surprised by that ranking and wouldn’t have put his team there himself.
Despite his preseason doubt, the season so far has proved the Hogs deserve to be at the top of the heap. Arkansas is 4-2 in conference play and 17-4 overall, ranked fifth in both. By sheer record, they may not be overachieving, but considering the difficulty of their last five games, with two games against nationally-ranked #3 LSU and a game against #1 South Carolina on Sunday, things are a bit unbalanced. In addition, Arkansas played a more challenging pre-conference schedule than some, namely LSU.
“We went through it about as well as we could have hoped,” Neighbors said of pre-conference play, referencing only dropping games to South Florida and Oregon.
And from the most recent AP Poll, although unranked, Arkansas garnered significant votes translating to 24 points, only behind South Carolina and LSU in SEC. Tennessee was awarded 19 points.
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After they suffered a 24-point loss in their last conference opener to LSU, this week’s nailbiter was a potent display of Arkansas’ improvement.
“It was a hostile environment, but in my opinion, I love playing in those environments where everybody in the arena is rooting against you. It just makes it 10 times more fun,” senior guard Makayla Daniels described to The Next, also coming off a game-winning buzzer-beater heave against Vanderbilt.
On Thursday, the Tigers immediately pulled out ahead of the Hogs, staying roughly 10 points ahead for much of the first half. Unlike their first game, Arkansas kept their rebounding margins relatively close. In the third, Arkansas tightened the game, scoring 27 points in the quarter, and took a very brief lead at the end of the fourth, breaking LSU’s over 150 consecutive minutes of leading.
Scrappy performances from Daniels fighting for balls and beyond the arc, alongside an electric Erynn Barnum, who scored 20 points and put up seven rebounds, kept the Hogs fighting. And although they were still significantly out-rebounded, which is easy playing against Angel Reese’s LSU, their defense was more disruptive, largely thanks to five-time SEC Freshman of the Week Saylor Poffenbarger. Ultimately, they lost the game 79-76, but Daniels still described the game as validating.
“I think we kind of really shocked a lot of people even though we didn’t come out with a win… People still underestimate us. They feel like we can be good, but they’re like, ‘are they?’” Daniels said, describing her team’s identity. “I would say [we’re] underdogs, but not with the talent.”
But Neighbors is still surprised by how much his team has accomplished.
“I am [surprised] because I think our league is really good. [But,] I’m not surprised that we were capable of [doing well],” Neighbors told The Next.
And from Neighbors’ perspective, this team is full of “pleasers,” who want to keep doing well as possible.
“We got a bunch of golden retrievers,” Neighbors said. “They want to get along, they want to please their teammates, they want to please their coaches, they want their parents and their support systems to be proud of them.”
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Neighbors began the season by instituting a “lock-in chain” where each member of the team has a carabiner they bring to practice and “lock in” with each other. Based on a team vote, whoever is the most “locked-in” player receives the chain. Daniels says the team takes it extremely seriously.
And they have been “locked in,” thanks to many.
“Our defense went for like 300 something in the country to top 15. If you were asking me to pinpoint one thing, it would be [Poffenbarger]. She’s been able to guard such a variety of offensive players, she’s an unbelievable rebounder, she’s got great awareness and is a great fixer and a talker,” Neighbors said. “Of the golden retrievers, she might be the leader of the pack. She really is golden retriever.”
But beyond just Poffenbarger’s numbers, Neighbors said that she sets the tone for defensive play and elevated everyone else’s game, Barnum being one of them.
“I use the 40-year-old man at the YMCA analogy. I mean she is not easy to guard the first time or second time around,” Neighbors said. “To see her care about her assists when I talk to her high school coach, ‘Erynn is looking for assists.’ He’s like, ‘I’m sorry, who?’… She’s a kid in 2023 a lot of places would’ve transferred… [She] used to be high maintenance, and now it’s no maintenance.”
And with last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year Samara Spencer and the ever-consistent Daniels only becoming more of a leader, this team has grown into their success. And their success hinges on their attitude: playing together for one another. Based on their on-court performance and team testimony, it is clear that this team is unselfish and united.
And this may be the Arkansas program’s turning point.
“Yes, it does [feel like a turning point]. I think in the past years, we’ve kind of been up and down throughout the season. But this year, I feel like it’s been consistent,” Daniels, who is in her fourth year in Fayetteville, said. “Every game we’re going to defend. Our scoring might not be there, but every game we’re going to defend.”
Arkansas basketball has had a long history, with the team informally forming at the turn of the 20th century, and in the late 90s to early 2000s, the great Gary Blair spent 10 seasons leading the team, bringing the team to five NCAA tournaments, their only Final Four appearance, and a WNIT Championship.
“I think our program has been there, it just hasn’t been recently. It hasn’t been in my kids lifetime… I think we’ve gotten it back to a point of consistency to where the NCAA Tournament is kind of expected,” Neighbors said. “On our campus last year all but one sport went to the NCAA tournament. … I think our kids want to be in that conversation of having an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament every single year. That would be legacy leaving because nobody’s done it.”
And so, Arkansas has a history of competitive play, but there is still room to grow. If the team makes this year’s NCAA tournament, they’ll be the first team in program history to qualify for four back-to-back tournaments, including Arkansas’ qualifying for the canceled 2020 tournament.
And the team’s popularity in Arkansas is only soaring as well. According to Neighbors, each season the team sells more season tickets, the autograph lines are never-ending, and their pregame Chalk Talk has grown to over 150 fans a game. But with that comes an undeniable pressure, particularly in Arkansas. And although a pack of golden retrievers means they’re hungry, the pressure can get to them.
“I can say this because I’m from here, I’m born and raised in Arkansas, we are the best fanbase, and we are the worst fanbase… It is a hard place, but it’s a fun place and it’s rewarding,” Neighbors said. “There’s no pro sports to deflect from; right, there’s no Power Five school to deflect from. There are all eyes on you and you are recognized in their community and in the state.”
Playing in Arkansas is a unique experience in itself; Neighbors told The Next that, in contrast, when he coached at the University of Washington in Seattle, he was recognized one singular time. But beyond just Fayetteville, the pressure from social media compounds. But, with great pressure comes great responsibility.
“You always have to be that role model, no matter where you’re at,” Daniels said. “I see it as a pressure, but I also see it as an opportunity. We get the chance to do that.”
And although it appears this Arkansas program is on the brink of greatness, the road for these retrievers will still be tough, with Neighbors citing free-throw shooting, turnovers, and rebounding as places to improve. But it seems like they’re up for the challenge.
Arkansas faces off against South Carolina on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2.