It’s rebuilding time for the Razorback women’s basketball team. After a disastrous 2-14 conference record season in 2016-17, the Hogs are shaking things up and hoping for better results this season with a whole new system, a heavily new roster and the return of a successful native Arkansan coach on the sidelines.
Back in the Neighborhood
Greenwood, Arkansas, born-and-raised Mike Neighbors replaced Jimmy Dykes as coach April 3 earlier this year and became the ninth head coach in the program’s history. Neighbors is a 1993 UA graduate and served as director of operations and assistant coach in two separate stints with the Razorbacks women’s basketball team. He coached his first game at Bud Walton Arena as a head coach Nov. 2.
“Home is home, and family is family, the opportunity doesn’t come knocking very often and you have to recognize it when that happens,” Neighbors said on the Paul Finebaum show. “I didn’t know if the job would ever be offered, but it’s everything I hoped it would be.”
Neighbors, as a head coach, has a 98-41 coaching record and led the University of Washington women’s basketball team to the Women’s NCAA Tournament in three of his four years with the Huskies, reaching the Final Four in 2016.
Neighbors brings with him a different coaching staff and a new system that the Razorbacks are not used to.
“We have 13 freshmen basically,” Neighbors said. “All our terminology is new to everybody, but this group has been very eager to learn.”
The biggest change that this Hog team will undergo this season, and the one that will be the most noticeable is changing its pace to go faster in game, Neighbors said.
Hog fans have already seen the benefit of that fast-tempo playing style in Arkansas’ first exhibition game against Northeastern State. Arkansas scored 82 points in that game, a rare feat for this team as they only had three games last season with 80 or more points scored while Dykes was coach.
“Everybody has bought into Coach Neighbors and his system,” graduate senior Devin Cosper said during SEC Media Day. “A lot of people are happier, and we want to be here now so it has gotten a lot better for everybody.”
Neighbors said he wants to see the Hogs average 20-25 possessions a quarter for this season, as well as becoming more united and communicative with each other, bettering their transition defense and not focus too much on individual positions.
For the 2017-18 season, Arkansas will be the only SEC team to not return any double-figure scorer from last season, according to the Paul Finebaum show.
In all, Arkansas lost seven of its players from the previous season. Forward Jessica Jackson and center Alecia Cooley graduated this past year. Jackson led all scorers last year with 14.7 points per game and also led the team in rebounds with 6.4 per game.
Former freshman guard Aaliyah Wilson transferred to Texas A&M over the summer while former sophomore guard Jordan Danberry transferred to Mississippi State.
In addition to those four, the program also lost guard Briunna Freeman, center Tatiyana Smith and center Yasmeen Ratliff, all of whom were part of the six players involved in kneeling during the national anthem in an exhibition game Nov. 3, 2016, an event that brought the university heavy controversy. Danberry was also involved, leaving sophomore guard Jailyn Mason and sophomore forward Kiara Williams the only remaining members from that incident.
“It hasn’t been a discussion this year,” Neighbors said. “I think that was last year, they’ve all lived through it already, and I don’t think that’s been something that they talk about doing again.”
Neighbors and his staff’s first recruit was junior guard Raven Northcross-Baker who transferred to Fayetteville from Chipola College in Florida. Other transfers were redshirt sophomore guards Chelsea Dungee and A’Tyanna Gaulden, who came from Oklahoma and Florida State, respectively, but they will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Dungee was selected to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team last season after averaging 7.4 points and 2.5 rebounds a game.
Guard Grayce Spangler and forwards Taylah Thomas and Macy Weaver are three new freshmen that will also be wearing the cardinal red and white this year. A three-star recruit, Thomas ended her high school career being named the ninth-best forward in the nation by MaxPreps, while Spangler was named the No. 5 best player in Arkansas by the same site and led Fayetteville High School to a Class 7A State Championship in 2017.
Arkansas will play the University of Texas at El Paso Tournament on Nov. 24 and 25 against UTEP and New Mexico State, respectively in El Paso, Texas. The annual Big 12/SEC Challenge game will be Dec. 3 and will have the Hogs pitted up against Kansas.
For the conference season, Arkansas will face five SEC opponents that were ranked in the preseason Top 25 Associated Press Poll. Those opponents and game dates are No. 7 Mississippi State on Jan. 4, No. 16 Missouri on Jan. 21 and on Feb. 11, No. 4 and defending SEC champion South Carolina on Jan. 25, No. 14 Tennessee on Feb. 8 and No. 20 Texas A&M on Feb. 22.
Arkansas’ next game will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Bud Walton Arena against Sam Houston State.
“This year has gone off to such a great start,” junior guard Keiryn Swenson said. “We are really meshing well and connecting on the court and off the court as well. I’m really excited to see where this season takes us”