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UA-UALR and Nolan Richardson Dedication

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This past Sunday in Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas athletic department knocked it out of the park.

The occasion was the unveiling of the Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena before the UA-UALR exhibit that kicked off the Eric Musselman era. Richardson, as well as former head coach Mike Anderson, were in the house. More than 7,000 fans gave both men, who have meant so much to basketball in this state through the decades, standing ovations.

At a press conference during halftime, Richardson laid out the differences between himself and the man who was his assistant for 17 years. “You will never find anyone as genuine,” he said of Anderson, now head coach at St. John’s. “Sometimes I wish I could’ve been like him, but we all are who we are, and that’s what I told him. You be you. I’ll be me. You will make people like you, and I’ll make people hate me.”

As a coach, Richardson was famously combative and prickly. But he also drove Arkansas to heights it hadn’t seen before or since, winning a national championship and a runner-up finish.

Anderson, as loved as he remains in Arkansas, was often criticized for being too nice. Whether fair or not, the rap on him was that he couldn’t motivate players to consistently play with the same fire Nolan’s players had.

Razorback fans are ready for a coach who can tactically instill the fear of Thor in his players. They may have that in their new head coach.

One of the most important differences between Musselman and Anderson is how they respond to players’ mistakes during the game. Musselman appears more in line with the “bad cop” model that was Richardson’s mojo.

During the UALR exhibit, Razorback guard Mason Jones turned the ball over and Musselman didn’t hesitate to pull him from the game, despite Arkansas’ comfortable lead at the time. Jones is a projected starter who will likely finish as one of the Hogs’ top two scorers, but that didn’t matter to Musselman as he crossed his arms and looked silently into the rafters, tensing his jaw.

One of Musselman’s assistants, playing the good cop, chatted with Jones about the mistake as he walked to his seat. It’s clear that Musselman is hard-driving in a different way than Anderson. He shows Richardson-level intensity on the sidelines. It will be fascinating to see how his players respond.

Here are two other quick takeaways from the Hogs’ 79-64 win over Little Rock (aka “UALR”):

  1. The Hogs must get better at driving to the basket.

On this particular day, the lack of driving to the rim didn’t kill Arkansas because star shooting guard Isaiah Joe went supernova, hitting eight of 17 three-point attempts. Though he’s good enough that he should attempt 15 or more threes a game, if they are in the flow, Joe won’t always hit at that kind of clip.

Jimmy Whitt, Jalen Harris, Mason Jones need to break defenders off the dribble more often and draw fouls going to the rim. Against the Trojans, they seemed to be thinking a little too much in the Hogs’ new drive-and-dish offense, but hopefully, they will get more comfortable with using their quickness off the dribble.

2. A lot rides on Reggie Cheney’s ability to stay out of foul trouble

Little Rock has an athletic, imposing front line, but it’s not the same caliber as the Power 5 front lines that the Hogs will face during the regular season. Arkansas is already undersized with only four rotation players in the 6’6” to 6’8” range in Jeantal Cylla, Adrio Bailey, Ethan Henderson and Reggie Chaney.

Of that group, 6’8” sophomore Chaney is the only one with the physical strength to go toe to toe for extended periods with the 6’10” plus behemoths the Hogs will face. Against the Trojans, he was barely able to stay on the court, racking up five fouls in less than 15 minutes.

It’s critical that Chaney plays longer in games going forward, not only for defensive/rebounding purposes, but also because he improved his footwork and touch around the basket and should score at least 12 points a game. He’ll do a lot of screening for Arkansas’ dangerous shooters this season. Expect him to be the recipient of many passes while diving to the rim after those.

I attended this game with my daughter, Eden, and my younger brother, Tanner. He and I grew up in Little Rock in the 1990s, and I’ll never forget the amount of pride we got from seeing the Hogs compete at a high level.

In a state that has almost always been at or near the bottom in quality of life national rankings, seeing the state at the top at such an impressionable young age forever shaped my expectations for the program.

I’m glad to see Nolan get his due. He didn’t just deliver wins on the court — he delivered a level of respect by and for Arkansans that shouldn’t be underestimated by future generations.

 

 

 

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Little Rock native Evin Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks and Other Forgotten Stories. Follow him on Twitter @evindemirel.

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