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Anderson reels in recruits with ‘Arkansas first’ strategy

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Photographs by Andy Shupe

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson directs his team against Missouri Western Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena.

Will Arkansas Razorbacks fans mind terribly if we skipped football talk this week and focus on basketball?

I didn’t think so.

It is obvious Mike Anderson has accelerated an “Arkansas first” strategy to revive the Razorbacks basketball program. We saw it last week during the early signing period when the Hogs signed three more players from Arkansas to follow up on the six homegrown athletes on the current roster.

Desi Sills will arrive from Jonesboro next year and team in the backcourt with Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith Northside, who led the Grizzlies to the Class 7A title as a junior, and forward Ethan Henderson of Little Rock Parkview.

Do not overlook the importance of signing a player from the Fort Smith area, especially a popular one like Joe who will help increase the traffic flow up the hill to Bud Walton Arena. If there’s anything that generates excitement more than winning it is winning with players with whom fans in the state are familiar.

Players from Fort Smith have contributed significantly to Razorbacks basketball, including Almer Lee, Keith Wilson, and Ron Brewer, who teamed with Marvin Delph of Conway and Sidney Moncrief of Little Rock to lift Arkansas onto the national stage in the late 1970s.

Can it happen again with any combination of the homegrown talent the Razorbacks have compiled?

We’ll see.

“Fort Smith hasn’t had anybody sign with the Razorbacks in a long time,” Northside coach Eric Burnett said prior to Joe’s signing ceremony at Kaundart Fieldhouse. “This is great for the community, it’s great for Northside High School, and it’s great for Isaiah and his family. I can promise you we are very excited about this opportunity for him.”

Those great Memphis teams were built with local talent, even with Nolan Richardson adding players like Ron Huery, Todd Day, and Lee Mayberry to his roster when the Memphis and Tulsa pipelines were flowing freely to Fayetteville.

An emphasis on in-state talent does not in anyway diminish the immense contributions of Arkansas signees from around the country, and even internationally. The Razorbacks would likely finish near the bottom of the SEC without them.

Still, it is frustrating to Razorbacks fans when top basketball programs like the Kentucky men and Connecticut women get to cherry-pick the top players from within our borders. It happened with Malik Monk and again on Friday when Christyn Williams of Central Arkansas Christian signed to play at Connecticut. High school girls basketball is particularly strong here and Razorbacks’ women’s coach Mike Neighbors, an Arkansas native, is sure to keep more of the in-state talent at home as he rebuilds the women’s program.

The Arkansas men finished 25-10 last season behind the shooting of Dusty Hannahs, who led the team in scoring as a senior and junior. But the Pulaski Academy product played two years at Texas Tech before he transferred and was welcomed into the Razorbacks’ program.

Michael Sanchez of Spring-dale Har-Ber was the only instate player to make a contribution during John Pelphrey’s last season at Arkansas, when the Razorbacks finished 18-13 in 2011. Anderson signed Ky Madden of Lepanto to his first recruiting and Madden became a key player for the Razorbacks by the time he was a senior. Bobby Portis was a prize recruit for Anderson, who later added transfers Alandise Harris, Hannahs, and Daryl Macon, all from the Little Rock area. He also received quality minutes from former walk-ons Kikko Haydar and Manny Watkins, both of Fayetteville.

Much like Portis, the expectations are very high for Daniel Gafford, the 6-11 freshman from El Dorado. Gafford scored 10 points in only 17 minutes during Arkansas’ 96-58 victory over Samford at Bud Walton Arena Friday. There is a buzz about this team with an influx of young players and veterans like Jaylen Barford and Macon, who each scored 16 points in the win over Sam-ford.

So, Anderson gets it.

The best way to make Arkansas a “One Hog state” again is to build with players from the state of Arkansas.

Rick Fires can be reached at rfires@nwadg.com or on Twitter@NWARick.

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