Neighbors puts a reinvented Arkansas back on the map

and Sue Favor

Chelsea Dungee celebrates after a basket. Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics.
Chelsea Dungee celebrates after a basket. Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics.

There is a lot of basketball yet to play this season, and the SEC promises to be a dog fight yet again. But one thing is already clear:

Arkansas is back.

In the first AP top 25 poll of the year they were ranked No. 22 – the first time they have been ranked since 2015, and the first time they have started a season ranked since 2002, when Gary Blair was the head coach.

The Razorbacks have stayed in it, too, remaining in the poll and ending preconference play 12-1, which only No. 4 South Carolina and No. 11 Texas A&M equaled. They are making a living from three-point shooting, lack of turnovers and a high free-throw percentage.

The team’s high-energy, running style of play and joy on the floor, led by star guard Chelsea Dungee, has brought the crowds out and made coach Mike Neighbors a celebrity in his home state. It is a far cry from recent years, when Arkansas lived in the basement of their league.

“I don’t coach rankings,” said Neighbors, now in his third year with the program. “But we expect to be in the conversation at tournament time every year and see where we are. We want to be the best program we can be, and it starts with beating good programs on a consistent basis.”

After going 13-18, including 3-13 in the SEC, in Neighbors’ first season, the team went 22-15 last year and upset Blair and his Texas A&M Aggies in the conference tournament. They lost in the title game to coach Vic Schaefer’s Mississippi State Bulldogs, but made the point: they are a force to be reckoned with.

Neighbors has been able to add his own players relatively quickly, as Sooner transfer Dungee made her decision to play for him in 2017, when he was still the head coach at the University of Washington.

“My last game at Oklahoma was actually against coach Neighbors in the NCAA Tournament.” Dungee said. “So I had the opportunity to play against him, and that really helped my choice (to transfer to Arkansas).”

“To not have to watch it on screen, but to actually play against someone like that and see his system up close and personal, it was clear that it would be a good system for me.”

Dungee is averaging 19.8 points this year, and was named to the SEC preseason all-conference team.

Neighbors also added TCU transfer Amber Ramirez, who sat out the 2018-19 campaign due to the NCAA’s transfer rule, but who has already led the team in scoring in a pair of games this season, and is averaging 13.8 points per game on 46 percent three-point shooting.

Like Dungee, Ramirez is happy to be a Razorback.

“Coach (Neighbors) is very genuine and caring.” Ramirez said. “His door is always open and he pushes us hard to be at our best at all times. I saw what he did at Washington and liked the fast style of play. I’m excited to be here. I think we will keep building and be successful.”

Neighbors’ third weapon is Arkansas native Alexis Tolefree – a junior college transfer last season – who is averaging 13.5 points per game and shooting 47 percent from the three-point line. She and Ramirez have shot an NCAA-best 85 treys heading into tonight’s SEC tipoff against the Aggies.

“We have relied mostly on junior college transfers and strong in-state recruiting,” Neighbors said. “We knew if we got the right players to come that it would be a great start for our program.”

This blueprint sounds familiar because Neighbors did the same thing in his four years as head coach at Washington. In his third year, using the same running style of play, he guided the team to the program’s first Final Four appearance. The next season he saw his recruit, Kelsey Plum, shatter the NCAA scoring record and go first in the WNBA draft. The team’s other star, Chantel Osahor, was an All-American along with Plum.

Coach Mike Neighbors calls out a play. Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics.
Coach Mike Neighbors calls out a play. Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics.

Neighbors was the director of basketball operations for Blair at Arkansas in 1997, and served for a year as assistant coach 10 years later. So when the school came calling three years ago after previous coach Jimmy Dykes resigned, the Greenwood native did not hesitate.

“When I got the offer it didn’t take very long for me to accept because this was something that I have always wanted since I was 10 years old, when it may not have been very popular.” Neighbors said. “I thought the timing was right, so I wanted to come in and do the best job I could for as long as I could.”

He renewed the high school contacts he had in the state when he was there before, which has been an advantage.

“I have built a great relationship with a lot of high school coaches over the years and it has been great to be able to keep up with some of the talent we have here.” Neighbors said. “It has allowed us to establish our program’s identity.”

Neighbors has already received a key verbal commitment from five-star, in-state prospect Elaura Eaton for the 2020-21 campaign.

Coaching in the SEC is already difficult due to the number of elite teams. But it also means coaching against his longtime friends Blair and Schaefer, who was assistant coach at Arkansas when he was the basketball operations director.

Both Blair and Schaefer told the Hog Podcast last spring that Neighbors’ success was no surprise to them.

“I knew Mike was going to be good, just like I knew Vic Schaefer was going to be good when I hired them,” Blair said.

And though the three are opponents now, they are friends first.

“He’s ahead of the schedule I was on. I don’t see anything slowing him down,” Schaefer said on the podcast. “It’s fun to watch a friend have success, and especially in this league – it’s so hard to do. Friends in this business are so few and far between. I’m just really happy for and proud of Mike. …it’s about building a program; it’s not just about wins and losses.”

Though Neighbors hired Osahor as his assistant coach this season, he is not seeking a match up against Washington any time soon.

“It’s not something I would want to pursue personally because there is so much history there,” Neighbors said. “If we happen to meet each other in the Tournament at some point, it will be emotional for sure, because there are still people there that I respect very much.”

In the meantime, Neighbors’ focus is on continuing to build the Razorbacks up.

“Our basketball program will always reflect the same hard working blue collar mentality of the state of Arkansas,” Neighbors said. “We may never get the widespread national recognition of a UConn, Baylor or Stanford or those type teams. We just want to be a program that is considered for the Tournament every year because it’s something we haven’t done in a while.”

The Razorbacks host the Aggies tonight at 8 p.m. CT.