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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Neighbors making a difference at Arkansas

by Wally Hall | January 22, 2021 at 2:35 a.m.

There were expectations in 2017 when Mike Neighbors was hired to make the University of Arkansas women's basketball team competitive in the SEC.

Neighbors had distinguished himself in four years as the head coach at Washington, taking it to three NCAA Tournaments and making the Final Four and Sweet 16.

That though was in the Pac-12, not the SEC, so expectations were not unrealistic.

Neighbors has been the perfect fit.

Not only was he home grown, born in Greenwood and raised in Fort Smith, he graduated from the UA and was an assistant for a year there.

Still, most were thinking he'd make the Razorbacks an NCAA Tournament team in five years, maybe four with some luck.

Turns out Neighbors makes his own luck.

Last season the Razorbacks were 24-8 and 10-6 in SEC play and were in the NCAA tournament.

Then came the coronavirus and everything came to a screeching halt.

This season the Razorbacks are No. 15 in the nation and 11-5.

They have knocked off Baylor, and next week -- because of the virus -- will host the top program in the country, UConn.

Vanderbilt canceled the rest of the season, so Arkansas had an open date. Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach for the Huskies has had two games canceled already, and he wanted a quality opponent.

Like Arkansas.

Auriemma brings with him one of the all-time great players from Arkansas, former Central Arkansas Christian star Christyn Williams, who has started for the Huskies since her freshman year.

She's not only a great player but a really good person.

She said this week she was thrilled to come home and get to play in front of her friends and family.

Williams was the preseason American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and is averaging 14.9 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Some of the significance of this impromptu game is why Neighbors has the Razorbacks on the way up.

He doesn't brag and he sure doesn't taunt, but he'll play anyone, anywhere and next Thursday's 4 p.m. game on ESPN2 should be required watching.

* * *

The Arkansas men's program may have taken a major step forward Wednesday night in their come-from-behind win against Auburn.

Once again, the Hogs started slow and allowed the Tigers to take a 43-31 lead at the half.

Whatever Eric Musselman said at the break should be recorded.

The Razorbacks came out in the second half with a vengeance, took a lead, squandered it and in the final seconds held off Auburn for a 75-73 win.

The game should have been one of growing pains and left the Hogs with a shot of confidence and another lesson about a slow start.

"I don't think a team could have played any harder than we did in the second half,' Musselman said. "I would take that effort and energy they played with anywhere against anyone.'

Arkansas had 30 field goals and 16 assists, which means they passed the ball the way they are supposed to.

The Razorbacks have 12 games left, and five of those will or could be Quad 1 games.

Quad 1 games are against teams ranked in the top 30 of the NCAA NET rankings.

Right now, the Hogs are 1-4 against Quad 1 teams, but Oklahoma State could move up and Missouri, Florida, Alabama and LSU are in the top 30 right now.

What used to be known as a quality win is now part of the NCAA selection process with four quads ranked 1-4.

Beating Auburn did not move the Net needle, the Hogs remain No. 38.

* * *

Yes, I'm still working.

I'm quarantined with covid-19 but still feeling well enough to work, at least for now, from home of course, which I've been doing since the middle of March.

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