Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Neighbors: Razorbacks not changing their philosophy
Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors speaks with his team in a time out against Wright State during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)
FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Neighbors acknowledged that the bus ride from Austin, Texas, to San Antonio after the Razorbacks’ first-round upset loss to Wright State in the NCAA Tournament was no fun.
But given a little time, the University of Arkansas women’s basketball coach and the team were able to reflect more positively on the group’s accomplishments this season and over the past four years.
“Listen, that ride back from Austin was brutal,” Neighbors said. “It was really, really hard. But the flight home wasn’t. That’s when people were going, ‘Wow, look at all the things we did.’
The Greenwood native pointed out the wins over UConn and Baylor — two of the top programs in the country — earlier this season. This group also advanced to the SEC Tournament finals for the first time ever in 2019 and did it as a No. 10 seed.
The Razorbacks also put together back-to-back winning records in the SEC for the first time in school history.
“If you look at it in a four-year snapshot, let’s take chronological order out,” Neighbors said. “If you just start putting SEC Championship Game and SEC semifinals, wins over these guys, league wins, that four-year window is pretty good.”
Neighbors said getting Chelsea Dungee to transfer to Fayetteville when the Razorbacks were picked to finish last in the SEC four years ago was the key initial domino. It started the chain reaction that led to what would have been back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances if not for the pandemic in 2020.
The high-scoring guard became the Razorbacks’ first All-America selection since Shameka Christon in 2004 and scored more points than any other player in school history.
He talked about putting an asterisk next to this year since the Razorbacks, as a No. 4 seed, would have hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament under normal circumstances.
“I think we would have had 15,000 people in [Walton Arena] and who knows?” Neighbors said. “This season will always have that coulda been, woulda been. I get that. But the fact that we got through it and everybody got through it the way they did, there will be no regrets about it.”
Neighbors said a significant shift in personnel will change things next season. The Razorbacks will have more size and length, specifically with the addition of 6-6 freshman Jersey Wolfenbarger from Fort Smith Northside, but she’s not all.
Add to that incoming class 6-3 Emrie Ellis and 6-2 Ashlyn Sage, and Arkansas expects 6-0 guard Elauna Eaton, who sat out this season with a knee injury, to also make an impact.
Associate head coach Todd Schaefer will shift to more offensive duties since the Razorbacks will utilize some parts of the Princeton-style offense to make the best use of Wolfenbarger’s and others’ abilities. Schaefer ran similar things earlier as a head coach, Neighbors said.
Neighbors will go back to more of the defensive side of the ball, where he focused a lot of his time as an assistant coach.
But the Razorbacks will still be all about that pace.
“We’re still going to play fast,” Neighbors said. “We’re not changing our philosophy. We’re changing our tactics.
“That’s what I think gets lost sometimes is we beg, borrow and steal from everybody and then you make it fit what you do and try to do those things a lot. We’re not changing our approach. … you have to keep adapting or you die.”
Wolfenbarger, a McDonald’s All-American, is the blueprint to the Razorbacks’ future, similar to when Dungee came to Fayetteville, Neighbors said.
“We’re going to be changing some things because of her,” Neighbors said. “I think we’ve got a unicorn. There’s not been a female that I can think of that grew that size and stayed the same position. [Brittney] Griner grew, but she was always a post.
Neighbors will take advantage of the Razorbacks’ added length on defense, too. They could play more zone and will likely look to apply more pressure as well, he said.
Getting former Fayetteville standout Sasha Goforth, a 6-1 guard, to transfer after playing a year at Oregon State to join Wolfenbarger, not to mention Eaton from Nettleton, Marquesha Davis from Springdale and Erynn Barnum from Little Rock Central, gives the Razorbacks most of the top in-state talent from the past few years.
Sharp-shooting guard Amber Ramirez is excited about next season. The redshirt senior from San Antonio decided to take the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility given because of the pandemic and return to Fayetteville.
“I wanted to come back and make some more history,” Ramirez said. “Being a part of such a great team these past couple of years, I think I want to continue that, play one more year and see if we can get even further.”
Ramirez is the only senior on the roster, which also has no juniors. Her leadership will be invaluable, Neighbors said.
“That gives us another upperclassman with experience, a very good awareness of the college landscape and another voice in the locker room of that NCAA experience that we had,” Neighbors said.
With two starters returning, the Razorbacks might be light on the preseason accolades, but Neighbors still has high expectations for next season.
“I think this roster can finish with a winning record in the SEC,” Neighbors said. “I think we could be considered an NCAA Tournament team and I’ll be disappointed if we’re not because I think we’ve got the makings and the mentality of being able to do all those things.”
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