The 2016-17 season was one full of lows and not enough highs for the Razorback women’s basketball team. Disappointments, losses and controversy rattled a team that went on to finish dead last in the Southeastern Conference. With a conference record of 2-14, a complete rebuild was in order. Enter Mike Neighbors. The Greenwood, Arkansas, native returned to his home state with one goal in mind for this team: not finish last.
“This group has been out since day one to try to prove everybody wrong. We just don’t want to finish last,” Neighbors said. “When you were picked last and finished last last year, it’s an okay goal to have.”
The Hogs have a 3-11 record in conference play with two games left in the regular season. Admittedly, the Razorbacks’ record this season is not much better, but with only 80 minutes of playing time left, the Hogs, who rank No. 11 in the SEC, look to be on their way to completing their goal.
The Razorbacks have a good chance to win their last game at Vanderbilt but might suffer at the hands of No. 17 Texas A&M on Thursday. The teams below the Hogs, Florida, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, will all face at least one ranked team in their remaining matchups, making it unlikely to finish above the Hogs.
The results have seen only a smidgen of improvement, but Neighbors thinks this team is right on track with what he had planned, he said.
“We don’t judge ourselves by the outcomes of these games,” Neighbors said. “We haven’t all year and we’re not going to continue to do that.”
Instead, Neighbors thinks this team has been learning this season from the losses and getting better everyday, he said. The pressure was on the Razorbacks from day one after being picked to finish last again in the conference by the media in preseason rankings.
“We’re just going to use that to our advantage,” graduate guard Devin Cosper said. “A lot of people will probably always pick us to be the underdog, but we believe in ourselves and our coaches believe in us, so that’s all that really matters.”
Since last season, Arkansas has upped its Rating Percentage Index from No. 174 last season and dead last in the SEC to No. 108 and ninth in the SEC, according to stats from Real Time RPI. The Hogs have also enjoyed a better strength of schedule ranking, going from No. 80 in the country to making it to the No. 40 spot.
In the middle of the rebuilding season, three players have stuck out to Hog fans.
Cosper, who will be honored during senior night this Thursday as the team’s only departing player, has been the star of the show and leader that the squad needed to stay together during tough times, Neighbors said.
She was voted as the university’s comeback player of year at the 2017 Hogspys Awards after averaging 6.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in the wake of an injury and a family tragedy at the start of last season.
The former junior college player has gone on to see her stats shoot up in the 2017-18 season, averaging 14.4 points and 5.9 rebounds, good for second on the team in both categories. She was slowed down in the middle of conference season because of an ankle injury she suffered against Auburn on Jan. 14 but had a career night in points in just her fourth game back after scoring 29 against No. 11 Tennessee on Feb. 8.
“I accidently was watching old film the other night, and I saw (Cosper’s) injury. It’s amazing that kid’s even walking. It was one of those that you look at and you cringe,” Neighbors said after Cosper’s first game back against South Carolina on Jan. 25.
Junior guard Malica Monk and sophomore forward Kiara Williams have been the other two bright spots for the struggling Hog team. Monk is the group’s scoring leader with 16 points a game and took over the offense in Cosper’s absence. Her quickness and ability to drive in and penetrate defenses was something other SEC teams had a really tough time guarding.
Monk has been the Hogs’ ironwoman this season while currently leading the team playing 34 minutes a game and has a few 40-minute outings under her belt as well.
When either Monk or Cosper weren’t as effective, it was the 6-foot-1-inch Williams down low that was Arkansas’ lifeline, Neighbors said.
Williams is averaging a solid seven points and 7.8 rebounds a game despite being undersized to other teams’ centers.
“(Williams) has no business putting up those kinds of number against that front-line, but she continues to do it. I think she’s been one of those kids that never gives up in anything she does.” Neighbors said following Williams’ nine-point, 10-rebound performance against Tennessee.
The Hogs will say goodbye to Bud Walton Arena for the season when they take on No. 17 Texas A&M at 7 p.m. Thursday.