A look back: Richardson never ceases to surprise

  • Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson reacts to a call during the 1995 NCAA championship game. Arkansas played UMass in the 1996 Sweet 16. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 9:01:19 PM
Modified: 3/19/2020 9:01:09 PM

Editor’s note: With the NCAA Tournament canceled, the Gazette looks back to when UMass made its run to the 1996 Final Four. Below is a story on Arkansas leading into the Sweet 16. This story appeared in the Gazette on March 20, 1996.

ATLANTA — Two years ago Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson rode a “We don’t get any respect” theme all the way to the national title. This year it’s impossible not to shower respect on the Razorbacks and the proud, demanding man who makes them go.

Arkansas, which will meet the University of Massachusetts tomorrow night in an Eastern Regional semifinal at the Georgia Dome, is the least likely participant in this year’s Sweet 16. The Razorbacks are the No. 12 seed, the lowest remaining seed in the tournament. They had only three letter winners return from last year’s squad, none of them starters. On top of that, just last month they permanently lost their top scorer (Jesse Pate) and their top rebounder (Sunday Adebayo) because of problems involving their transcripts at junior college.

Arkansas barely made it to the field of 64 with an 18-12 record. The Razorbacks came into tournament pressure starting four freshmen.

Then lo and behold, they knocked off No. 5 Penn State and No. 4 Marquette.

Now they set their sights on UMass.

“I’m looking forward to playing the No. 1 team,” Richardson said after beating Marquette Saturday. “I love the challenge of playing the best.”

Richardson is a driven and focused man who admits that he sometimes keeps his wife, Rose, awake by watching game film at 3 a.m. The 54-year-old coach has won at every level: high school, junior college and Division 1. Through 16 years at the Div. 1 level (five at Tulsa, 11 at Arkansas), he has compiled a 391-131 record for a .749 winning percentage. That percentage is fifth among active coaches in America.

He was not an instant success at Arkansas, however. He arrived in 1985-86, taking over for the hugely successful Eddie Sutton, who had guided the Razorbacks to eight straight NCAA appearances, including one trip to the Final Four. There was an expectation of success in Fayetteville.

It was not met. Richardson’s first team went just 14-16 and didn’t make postseason play. The next year the Razorbacks finished 19-14, which was good enough for the NIT, but not nearly good enough for the folks back in Arkansas. To make matters far worse, Richardson and Rose lost their daughter Yvonne to leukemia that year.

From that horrible low, Richardson has built one of the most successful programs in America. This is the ninth straight NCAA appearance for Arkansas, one better than even Sutton could produce. Three times he has taken his team to the Final Four. Two years ago the Razorbacks won it all by beating Duke. Last year they again got to the championship game, falling to UCLA.

In the decade of the ’90s, no team in America has won more games than Arkansas.

This year, though, has been a colossal surprise. When juniors Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft (Williamson making it with the Sacramento Kings, Thurman heading to the Continental Basketball Association), the core of the championship team had been dismantled. What Arkansas had instead was one of the youngest teams in the land.

“I’m just so proud of the young bucks,” Richardson said after the Marquette win. “It’s unbelievable how hard they’ve worked.”

Four starters are freshmen, headed up by electrifying point guard Kareem Reid, a one-time teammate of UMass’ Dana Dingle and Charlton Clarke at St. Raymonds High School in the Bronx. The most unlikely freshman starter of all has been Pat Bradley of Everett, Mass., the first player from the Bay State ever to play for Arkansas. Bradley, hardly recruited by any big-time schools, averages 10 points per game for the Razorbacks.

The success that this team has had in the NCAA Tournament has given the Razorbacks their own identity, Richardson maintains. He feels that they had to emerge from the shadow of the success of previous teams, just as he had to emerge from the shadow of Eddie Sutton’s success years ago.

“The hardest thing is to follow someone who is good,” says Richardson. “They had a ghost following them. Now that ghost is gone.”

But if this team has developed a unique sense of itself, it has done so in the old-fashioned Arkansas way, finding its success through the withering, chaotic defense Richardson calls “40 minutes of hell.”

“Defense wins championships,” says Richardson. “I’ve always known that.”

Arkansas generally presses and traps from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Richardson says his team is hard for opponents to prepare for because there appears to be a randomness to its defense.

“It’s more of a scramble, as opposed to the defense that UMass plays,” he says. “UMass is a strong, solid man-to-man defensive basketball team. We’re a gambling basketball team. Big difference.”

The Razorbacks try to prevent teams from getting in to their halfcourt offensive sets by placing extreme pressure on the guards. Richardson refers to this as “cutting off the head of the body.”

“It’s just harassing,” Richardson says. “If you were to be harassed for 40 minutes, there’s going to be some wear and tear, if you can stand the pressure. We all bend to pressure, all of us. There’s not a single person alive who won’t bend to pressure.

“That’s the philosophy behind 40 minutes of hell. Just keep the pressure on for 40 minutes: harassment, harassment. That’s what we try to do.”

By preaching 40 minutes of hell, Richardson hopes to watch his team rise to hoop heaven once again.


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