FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Mike Anderson has refused to shy away from the past since he was hired at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks coach has reminded followers consistently about the school's 1994 national championship, one he was part of as an assistant to then-coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson has also made it clear he thinks the Razorbacks can return to that level — starting, perhaps, with a trip to the NCAA tournament this season.
Arkansas started quickly before fading late last season, Anderson's first since leaving Missouri, and missed the tournament for the fourth straight year. The injury-depleted Razorbacks lost nine of their final 12 games to finish 18-14, a mark Anderson hopes to improve on this season behind a reloaded and replenished roster.
It's an expected improvement that Anderson hopes is another step toward his eventual goal.
"My focus is unbelievable in terms of getting Razorbacks basketball to the highest level," Anderson said. "There's a standard here, and I understand that. Myself and my staff have been working night and day to make sure we're doing all the right things to change the culture and get our guys on the same page we are."
Anderson thought he had his foundation set last season with forward Marshawn Powell and electrifying guard BJ Young. Powell only lasted two games before missing the rest of the season with a torn ACL — opening a leadership role for Young, who averaged a team-high 15.3 points per game as a freshman.
After an offseason of rehabilitation for Powell and Young's decision to bypass the NBA draft, both return this season. The duo is expected to lead an overhauled roster that features seven new players.
"We're certainly looking forward to preparing for year two and building on some of the things we did in year one," Anderson said. "Obviously, we want to address some of the concerns or things we didn't do well in year one, and that is to get some depth and more guys who fit what we're doing."
Arkansas played much of last season with only eight scholarship players because of injuries. Anderson said the lack of depth played a role in the late-season swoon, keeping the coach from playing as much high-tempo and swarming defense as he likes. The result was a Razorbacks defense that was worst in the Southeastern Conference, allowing an average of 69.7 points per game.
To counter the lack of numbers this season, Anderson added four freshmen along with a trio of transfers. Anderson liked what he saw from the freshmen — Michael Qualls, Jacorey Williams, DeQuavious Wagner and Anthlon Bell — during a four-game exhibition series in Italy, and the new faces have been welcome relief for the veterans.
"Definitely," Powell said. "We're going to need numbers playing in the system we play in."
Powell only played in two games last season before injuring his right knee in practice, averaging 19.5 points and shooting 71 percent from the field in his limited action. The junior didn't have much of an opportunity to play and mesh with Young, but he paid close attention to the sophomore's game — particularly during the summer trip.
"I feel like him and I will work well together," Powell said. "He's a very speedy and heady guard, and I'm just going to play off of him and see how I can make it work."
Young, who is expected to see time at both shooting and point guard this season, wouldn't say if he decided to return to college with the intention of leaving after this season. However, he was adamant about his excitement of playing with Powell.
"I felt like if I came back I could help the team improve on stuff that we did last season," Young said. "With the new talent we had coming in and the coaching staff being under them for another year, I feel like we can rise up even more from where we were at last year."
A lack of size was an ongoing problem last year for Arkansas, which was outrebounded by an SEC-worst 3.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-7 Powell is expected to provide help in that area this season, as is 6-7 junior-college transfer Coty Clarke.
Anderson had hoped to receive another boost in Houston transfer and Arkansas native Alandise Harris, but the 6-6 forward — who averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds last year for the Cougars — was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA and must sit out this season.
Regardless of who plays, the Razorbacks will have to play well quickly against a nonconference schedule that includes Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Michigan. Arkansas will also face an 18-game SEC schedule for the first time — including a trip to Anderson's former school, Missouri, on March 5.
"We've got to come out with it from day one, in terms of bringing the energy, bringing the focus," Anderson said. "I'm anxious to see how this team develops, but I've just got a feeling it's going to be an exciting team."