Mike Anderson has seen highs and lows during his 20 plus years as a basketball coach at the University of Arkansas.
During a 17 year stint (1985-2002) as an assistant coach to Nolan Richardson, the Razorbacks won five conference titles, appeared in three Final Fours and won a national championship in 1994. Those Razorbacks were no ordinary champion; Richardson’s teams played at a blistering pace and with tenacious defensive pressure. Their style was called “40 Minutes of Hell”, and the moniker fit. That was the apex of Razorback basketball, and the Hogs have been searching for a return to glory ever since.
Richardson’s tenure ended with a controversial firing during the 2001-2002 season and Anderson took over as interim head coach, but the university went a different route at season’s end. So began Anderson’s coaching odyssey that would eventually lead him back to Arkansas. In 2002, Anderson landed the head coaching position at Alabama-Birmingham where he led the Blazers to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances including a run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2004. From there, Anderson took over at Missouri and oversaw an Elite Eight run in 2009. But he left Missouri to return to Arkansas as the head coach in 2011. His journey had come full circle.
Anderson’s success at UAB and Missouri was based on the “40 Minutes of Hell” philosophy he learned under Richardson. He rebranded the style. called it the “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball” and bringing it back to Arkansas has the program on the rise.
Under Anderson, the Razorbacks (13-3) have returned to their vintage style of play which features relentless defensive pressure, an aggressive transition offense and an NBA caliber centerpiece. Let’s take a look inside “the Fastest 40″ and the Razorbacks’ attack.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”587″ title=”More Coaching Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Teams press for various reasons. Often, full court pressure is a ploy to require opponents to spend some valuable seconds of the shot clock advancing the ball up the court. Other teams press with the turnover and extra possessions in mind. Arkansas clearly fits in the latter category.
The Razorbacks force turnovers at an alarming rate, especially at home. Arkansas is 12th in the nation in turnover margin, fueled in large part by their full court pressure. The goal of the Razorbacks is to create and collect live-ball turnovers and convert them into easy points. This allows the Razorbacks to set their press and speed up the game. Anderson wants his players to convert from offense to defense immediately. They match up to the nearest man as soon as the ball goes through the hoop.
There are two basic tenets of Arkansas’s pressure defensive system: 1) trap the corners, and 2) cut off ball reversal and push the ball up the sideline. These tenets are illustrated clearly in this explosive scoring sequence.
First, Vanderbilt enters the ball into the deep corner. This is an automatic trap for the Razorbacks and it yields a turnover and a quick score.
After the first score, however, note how quickly the Razorbacks match up and set their pressure again. Arkansas has sped up Vanderbilt past their comfort zone. Vandy enters the ball again, but the Razorbacks force the dribble up the sideline. The Commodores mishandle the ball and the result is a back-breaking three. It is offensive outbursts like this, born out of their defense, that have the Hogs seventh in the nation in scoring (83.0 ppg).
Anderson has additional rules to his press. In this next sequence, you see the ball entered to the corner but the Razorbacks do not trap, choosing instead to prevent the pass back to the inbounder.
Vanderbilt entered the ball to a big man, and Anderson teaches that trapping a big man is counterproductive as it encourages him to pass to a better ball handler. Here, the Razorbacks force the uncomfortable big man to handle the basketball. He does manage to unload the ball to a guard in the opposite corner, where the Razorbacks demonstrate the rule of trapping the corners. When Vanderbilt finally get the ball into the halfcourt, the Arkansas pressure does not relent. The Razorbacks deny passes looking for deflections, and the possession ends with an illustration of another of Anderson’s teachings – the trapping of ball screens.
Anderson believes that if the offense chooses to bring two defenders together, they should be forced to deal with a trap. Late in the shot clock, Vanderbilt brings together Arkansas’s two best players, Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis, and they set an effective trap of the ball screen leading to a loose ball and a shot clock violation.
It is with this sort of pressure that the Razorbacks are forcing nearly 17 turnovers per game. But defensive pressure is only one component of the “Fastest 40.” Anderson’s offensive philosophy connects as well.
The Razorbacks run one of the most straightforward and aggressive offensive attacks in college basketball. There is no place for working the ball late into the shot clock within the “Fastest 40” methodology.
Instead the Razorbacks look for early transition baskets. From there, Anderson’s offense allows for space to drive and the screening rules are kept simple. The mantra: keep things simple and stay in attack mode. There is little offensive nuance in the Razorbacks offensive system.
After an opponent’s made field goal, or after a defensive rebound, the Razorbacks essentially sprint into a four-out-one-in formation. The wings get out ahead of the ball and often they cross under the basket, but ultimately the Razorbacks play offense from this four-out set.
From there the action is simple and can be covered in one edict: pass and screen away. There is no room for complexity in this offense as the goal is to attack and attack quickly. When a player passes to a teammate he screens away for another. Anderson wants his players to come off the screen ready to shoot or drive.
In the diagram below, a simple pass-and-screen-way action is noted.
When 4 has the ball, he has the option of reversing to 2 and screening away for 3, or passing to 3 coming off the pindown. In either instance he screens away from his pass.
From the diagram above, 3 now has the same choices. He can reverse the ball to the wing or hit the cutter coming off the pindown. Below, the diagram shows the pass to the cutter and the screen away for 1 in the corner.
When the ball moves quickly, the result can be double screens away, and there is added screening from the post. But Arkansas does not spend time looking to pass and screen for long stretches of time. Instead, they attack quickly.
This sequence shows the quick-striking Hogs at their best. From an opponent’s made field goal, the Razorbacks attack. The wings sprint ahead and cross under the basket. When they arrive in the corners, the four-out look is set.
From there, the Razorbacks run two rapid ball reversals. When Qualls catches up top, he passes to the cutter, then follows the screen away rule and downscreens for Jabril Durham, who connects with a three. It is quick and simple and early in the shot clock, just as the Razorbacks desire.
But Anderson and the Razorbacks prefer offense to be even more simple than that. The Razorbacks are at their best when being aggressive and attacking the rim in transition, knocking down quick threes and finishing rim runs.
To make the “Fastest 40” work Anderson needs depth and players who give maximum effort. That sort of team has taken some time to assemble, but Anderson now has a roster in the “40 Minutes of Hell” mode. As fresh legs are key to the system, the Razorback have 10 players averaging double-digit minutes.
In the backcourt the Hogs are lead by Rashad Madden, Durham and Qualls. Madden was the team’s leading scorer in 2013-2014, but has moved into more of a facilitator role this year due to the emergence of Portis. Durham is a JUCO transfer that has played his way into the the starting line up, and Qualls is a super athletic high-flyer who is key to the pressure system on both ends. He has upped his production to 15.8 points per game this season, and is entrenched as the Razorbacks second option. Depth is key to the pressing system, and Anderson gets minutes and production from backcourt reserves Anthlon Bell, Anton Beard and Nick Babb.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”539″ title=”More Team Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
The centerpiece of the Razorback attack, though, is Portis. The 6’11” big man is a Wooden Award candidate and is turning into a dominant force. He is at No. 22 in the latest Draft Express rankings, and is trending upward.
Averaging 18.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, Portis is athletic and polished in the paint. He has underrated passing skills, as well as some shooting range, and has already notched some staggering performances this season including 32 points and 11 rebounds in a recent win over Vanderbilt (which features fellow NBA prospect 6’10” Damian Jones).
In the pressure defense system, Portis is an asset, not a liability, and he can and will defend on the perimeter. His all-around offensive game from outside or the low block is enough to give Razorback fans hopes of knocking off Kentucky and claiming a Southeastern Conference title.
If there is one obstacle standing in the way of a Razorback return to glory, it is their inability to win on the road. The Razorbacks have won no more than three road games in a season during Anderson’s previous three seasons in Fayetteville. They are 2-3 on the road this year, and they recently dropped an SEC road game to an inferior Tennessee squad. If a true return to glory is to happen, the road woes must be repaired.
Anderson has the Razorbacks aiming for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008 and they are doing it in vintage Razorback style. On paper, this is Anderson’s best Arkansas team. It has the speed, quickness and offensive firepower to play to the style desired by Anderson and his legendary former boss Richardson.
This roster paired with the offensive and defensive philosophy has the ability to strike fear into opponents. They also sport a budding superstar in Portis, who plays with great energy, and there are plenty of vital pieces around him who all do too. If the Hogs can find the grit needed to win away from home, this could be a special season.