COLUMBIA, Mo. • The last time Frank Haith and Mike Anderson met on a basketball court tempers flared as the emotional atmosphere at Mizzou Arena came to life on the sideline last March 5. For reasons never fully explained, Haith erupted at the Arkansas coach and had to be restrained by his staff in the first half.
Haith’s Tigers went on to beat the Razorbacks and their former head coach by 30 points, evening the season series at 1-1. The two shared an icy handshake after the game but have spent the last year defusing the night’s theatrics. Neither has publicly clarified what set off last year’s explosive exchange.
“That’s water under the bridge,” Anderson said this week. “I think it was just miscommunication from both guys.”
“Mike and I, Marcheita (Anderson) and my wife, we’re really good friends,” Haith said. “We spend a lot of time with each other. So there’s no issue there.”
Whether they’re being genuine or tension still lingers between the coaches, the drama surrounding last year’s games in Mizzou’s inaugural Southeastern Conference season figures to fizzle some this year, mostly because MU’s team is entirely Haith’s recruits and transfers, with nobody left from the Anderson years.
But that doesn’t mean the matchup has lost its juice heading into tonight’s meeting at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., where the Tigers (15-4, 3-3 SEC) and Razorbacks (13-6, 2-4) renew Mizzou’s closest semblance of a rivalry in the SEC. Arkansas is 20-19 all-time against Missouri, winning 10 of the last 12 matchups dating back to the early 1990s.
“There’s some tension between Arkansas and Missouri it seems like, so I’m looking forward to playing them,” Mizzou guard Jabari Brown said. “I like those type of games. They’re going to be riled up. We’re going to be riled up, too.”
Brown said he could sense that tension “in the air a little bit” when the Tigers played at Arkansas last Feb. 16, when the Razorbacks pulled out a 73-71 win. Playing at what’s considered one of the country’s most hostile environments for visiting teams, Brown said Missouri players “heard a lot from their fans.”
“I can’t really say it,” he said. “But somebody told me they were surprised I was playing basketball. They thought everyone from Oakland (Calif.) just shoots people. That was a new one. I never heard that one before.”
Brown, the SEC’s leading scorer at 19.5 points a game, is indeed a dangerous shooter, but the key against Anderson’s trademark full-court pressure defense will be ball-handling. Missouri has tried to simulate Arkansas’ style of play in practice this week, especially working on breaking the press and finding spots on the floor to rescue the point guard from traps near midcourt.
But few have survived the suffocating pace on the Razorbacks’ home floor. In Anderson’s three seasons at Arkansas, the Hogs are 45-5 in Walton Arena, including 11-1 this season, the only blemish a two-point overtime loss to No. 3 Florida, the SEC’s best team.
Arkansas is just 2-5 away from home this season and 2-21 on its opponents’ home court under Anderson. But behind the league’s biggest home crowds outside of Kentucky, the Razorbacks enjoy a distinct home-court advantage.
“I’ve never seen a team like that, that plays so different from home and the road,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said earlier this season, “a team that presses 94 feet for 40 minutes at home and then presses very little on the road. That’s their staple, that’s what they do. That’s what makes it hard, coupled with the environment. You’ve got 20,000 people in there screaming, going crazy supporting their team and they play off of that energy, which makes the press even more effective.”
Missouri, 0-6 all-time at Walton Arena, hasn’t faced a team that’s applied much full-court pressure this year. That means point guards Jordan Clarkson and Wes Clark will be under fire from the opening tip, and fellow guards Brown and Earnest Ross will have to help relieve the pressure on their way down the floor.
“They’re good at speeding people up,” Brown said. “But they can only play as fast as you let them make you play.”
Offensively, Anderson has one of his more balanced teams, with five players averaging between 8.7 and 12.6 points a game. Despite lacking a true prolific scorer — junior guard Rashad Madden is the top scorer, though freshman forward Bobby Portis (11.9) is a potent inside threat — the Razorbacks lead the SEC in scoring (82.9) and assists (16.2).
“When you watch them on tape, they all do everything,” Haith said. “They all shoot it. They all drive it. That’s difficult. You’ve just got to know who shoots it better and who drives it better.”
For Anderson, the team on Haith’s end of the floor has nothing left from his five years running the Mizzou program. Gone from last year’s team are Laurence Bowers and Phil Pressey, the last remaining remnants of the Anderson era.
Some game-day drama might not be the worst thing for Missouri-Arkansas if it’s ever going to replace the rivalries of the Big Eight and Big 12 lost in conference realignment. Anti-Anderson angst could fade over time for Mizzou fans, but for now, tonight’s game pits two teams in need of quality wins to boost their postseason profiles. And two coaches who remain good friends, right?
“He’s a competitor just like I’m a competitor,” Anderson said. “So, it’s a big game.”