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Arkansas off to fast start under new coach Mike Anderson

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 | 11:29 p.m. CST
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson points to a player during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against LSU in Fayetteville, Ark. on Jan. 14. Arkansas defeated LSU 69-60.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Mike Anderson has talked repeatedly about the slow and steady process of building up Arkansas and developing its players.

Don't look now, but Anderson just might be in the process of fast-tracking the Razorbacks back to national relevance.

Arkansas (14-5, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) beat Michigan on Saturday for its second win over a ranked team, improving to 14-0 in Bud Walton Arena this season. The big victory came in front of a season-high crowd of 19,050 — one of the key points in the school's firing of former coach John Pelphrey in March.

"They're young, but that is the quickest team we'll probably see all year long," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They have a lot of talent on that team, a lot of talent."

Anderson was hired just 10 days after Pelphrey's dismissal, promising to return the Razorbacks to the pressing, helter-skelter style of play made famous at the school under former coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson was Richardson's right-hand man during their 17-season run at Arkansas, and he's delivered on that promise so far — with the Razorbacks leading the SEC by forcing 17.6 turnovers per game.

"I think these guys have listened and they've tried," Anderson said. "They've given themselves a chance. The key is that they're competing. I think, more than anything else, they're competing now.

"That's part of the growing process — to learn to compete, to play hard."

Arkansas' early success has come despite the loss of leading scorer Marshawn Powell to a knee injury after two games. The junior was averaging 19.5 points and appeared in shape and recommitted to basketball under Anderson after battling injures last season.

Powell's injury combined with the offseason transfers of several players — most notably last season's leading scorer Rotnei Clarke to Butler — left the Razorbacks with nine scholarship players. That included four highly touted but untested freshmen (BJ Young, Hunter Mickelson, Ky Madden and Devonta Abron).

Much like the team as a whole, the freshmen have progressed faster than even they could have expected. Young, a reserve, is averaging 14.7 points, and entering Wednesday night's game against Auburn (12-7, 2-3), the four have combined to score 32.6 points per contest.

"We always thought we would probably be somewhere around this point or better," Young said. "We never really had low expectations for our team. We're trying to keep working and keep getting better every day."

Mickelson is surprised by the early turnaround for a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament the last three seasons.

"Any time you can go undefeated at home, it's great," said Mickelson, who has blocked a shot in every game this season and is third in the SEC with 2.6 per game. "Coming in with all the freshmen and not really knowing what was going to happen, it's a good surprise."

Of course, all the positive vibes following the win over the Wolverines would be for naught should Arkansas return to SEC play with a loss to the Tigers. Mardracus Wade, who has stepped into Clarke's 3-point role and leads the SEC in 3-point percentage (50 percent), said he isn't concerned about a letdown following the emotional win over Michigan.

"We've just got to come in and do what we do best," Wade said. "We've got to play hard, play together and play to win."

The one negative for the Razorbacks so far under Anderson has been their inability to win away from home. They are 0-5 away from Bud Walton Arena this season, including losses at Connecticut and Kentucky.

Anderson expects that to change as his youthful group matures. For now, he's enjoying the early returns in his return to the Razorbacks.

"We've got to just continue to work hard and learn how to win," Anderson said. "Not only here, but maybe away from here as well. So, we're going in the right direction."


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