FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — Mike Anderson has been greeted like a conquering hero in his return to Arkansas.
The real battle is about to begin on the court for the first-year Razorbacks basketball coach.
Anderson left Missouri in March for Arkansas, where he once helped lead the program to national prominence as an assistant under Nolan Richardson for 17 years. Times have changed since Anderson’s departure following Richardson’s firing in 2002, both for the school and the coach.
The Razorbacks are no longer the power they once were, dating back to the days of coach Eddie Sutton and the 1994 national championship under Richardson. Meanwhile, Anderson is considered one of the top coaches in the country after successful stops at Alabama-Birmingham and with the Tigers.
Arkansas has missed out on the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. It hasn’t reached the second weekend of tournament play since 1996, much less been a consistent factor in the Southeastern Conference during that time.
Anderson expects to change all of that, hoping to rekindle the memories of the Razorbacks’ past.
"I think even as we sit here in this room in this state, people around the country are taking notice as well," Anderson said. "They’re looking to see what’s going to take place. And trust me, we’re working to get to that point."
Anderson was greeted by an estimated 5,000 Arkansas fans during his introductory news conference, all starving for success. Attendance has bottomed out in recent years — falling from an average of 17,148 in 2007-08 to 12,022 last season in the 19,200-seat Bud Walton Arena.
The product on the court hasn’t been much better, with last year’s 18-13 record somewhat of a mirage given the Razorbacks’ weak non-conference schedule. Arkansas was 7-9 in conference play and exited the SEC tournament in the first round, and the combination of performance and falling attendance resulted in John Pelphrey’s firing after four seasons and a 69-59 record.
"It was a tough year from the players’ standpoint and the coaches," point guard Julysses Nobles said. "It’s last year, and this is a new year."
Anderson has pleaded with fans to return since his hiring, promising a return to the up-tempo, pressing style of play made famous by Richardson’s "40 Minutes of Hell." How many return initially likely depends on how quickly Anderson can bring success — and he knows it.
"I just sense it as I go around the state and everywhere I go," Anderson said. "People are excited. It’s like there’s hope again. But at the same time, one of the reasons I know is I’m on my honeymoon and I’m undefeated, too. I know that."
Arkansas will have a very different look on the court this season, and not only because of its new style of play. Seven former players left the Razorbacks after last season, including three who transferred after Anderson’s hiring.
That includes last season’s leading scorer in guard Rotnei Clarke, who initially said he would stay at Arkansas before transferring to Butler during the summer. Clarke averaged 15.2 points per game last season and shot 44 percent on 3-pointers.
While Clarke is gone, Anderson is counting on the return of forward Marshawn Powell in more ways than one. Following a standout freshman season in which he averaged 14.9 points per game, the 6-foot-7 Powell regressed last season while battling a foot injury and averaged only 10.8 points.
The junior has embraced Anderson’s hiring, and he hopes his offseason work pays off with a return to All-SEC-caliber play and immediate success.
"The No. 1 thing is he never lets you slack off," Powell said. "He holds you accountable all the time. That’s what’s going to make us good."
Much of Arkansas’ success this season likely hinges on several other new arrivals. Through Pelphrey’s initial recruiting and Anderson’s closing, the Razorbacks signed a highly touted group of freshmen — Ky Madden, Devonta Abron, BJ Young and Hunter Mickelson — who carry much of the hope of Arkansas’ fans on their shoulders.
Anderson has tempered the expectations so far for the group, but Arkansas will take any hope it can these days.
"I think the thing about that is as a coaching staff and coach Anderson we’ll manage that and help tone that down," Arkansas assistant coach Melvin Watkins said. "There’s always that danger.
"We sure want to give these guys a chance to get in here, get their feet wet and not expect them to carry this whole program on their backs. That wouldn’t be fair."
The Razorbacks will open regular season at home Nov. 11 against South Carolina-Upstate.