Neighbors energized after massive overhaul of Arkansas women’s hoops

By Dudley E. Dawson
on 2024-07-02 11:42 AM


FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas women’s basketball head coach Mike Neighbors understands how some might not get the excitement he currently has about his job.

After all, his program has missed the NCAA Tournament the past two years, last season’s entire starting five is out the door and there are wealth of new faces from a lot of faraway places now on the roster.

But Neighbors, 138-92 at Arkansas in seven seasons, insists the roster revamp – with a definite International flavor from six countries – has him energized.

“My mindset is that I am as energized as I have been I’m 25 years,” Neighbors said. “A lot of perspective, reflection and just trying to get a grip on where things are at across the entire scope of the game and then down to ours.

“So going through all that, it has revitalized me and I know that we are gong to have teach and coach, which excites me. I’m not saying we still don’t have things to manage and things like that, but we are going to have to literally tech everything that we have ever done because of the language barrier and so many new faces.

“That’s my perspective – getting back to coaching. You have got kids from 6,000 miles away from home and six miles away and they all chose to be here when they could have chose other things an other places, but they chose Arkansas with an approach that has everybody around here excited.”

The Razorbacks finished 18-15 last season, 6-10 in SEC play and then starters Saylor Poffenbarger (Maryland), Samara Spencer (Tennessee), Taliah Scott (Auburn) and Maryam Dauda (South Carolina) all transferred.

Jersey Wolfenbarger (LSU) announced her decision to transfer before the 2023-2024 campaign started and did not play for Arkansas last season while super senior Makayla Daniels, who started a program record 155 games, is out of eligibility.

Arkansas was 17-7 on Feb. 4 , but skidded to the finish line by losing 8 of its last 9 and its last six, the capper of which was an 82-60 to rout at Tulsa in the WBIT.

“I had people say ‘you didn’t look like you where having much fun last year’ and I said ‘you know why? Because I wasn’t,’” Neighbors said. “That’s fair. There were times that weren’t very fun. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I am not blaming anybody other than myself for letting it get to where I had that appearance.

“I didn’t like to hear that, but it was accurate so (I asked myself) why was it like that and I realized some of the things that were getting me to that point.

“This has re-energized me, though and energized us all the way down to our practice and pretty much everything. It has had this freshness to it and having people around you like that all day long, you either rise to their level our your don’t.

“I think it has been fun to have an office and a gym full of people that are all in the same spot right now.”

The roster revamp began In November by signing a pair of freshmen in 6-3 Georgia product Jada Bates and 5-7 Phoenix Stotijn of Harrlem, Netherlands and added a transfer portal addition in Arkansas State guard Izzy Higginbottom in March.

Higginbottom, a Batesville native that tied for eight nationally in scoring last season at 22.8 points per game, had 27 in a 82-67 loss to Arkansas in Jonesboro on Nov. 17.

Neighbors has since added in Nigerian-born center Vera Ojenuwa (6-4) of Barton County (Kan.) Community College, Finland’s Pinja Paananen (6-2), Malta center Danika Galea (6-3) and Hutchinson (Kan.) CC Kiki Smith (5-7), the national junior college player of the year.

Maryan Archer, a 5-7 guard from Derby, Kan., redshirted last season after enrolling mid-year in 2023 while Stotijn did the same after arriving in Fayetteville this past January.

Those players will join returnees Jenna Lawrence, Carly Keats, Karley Johnson, Loren Lindsey, Emrie Ellis and Spain’s Cristina Sanchez Cerqueira.

There are six international players on the roster.

“…Our kids live 27,631 miles from their homes,” Neighbors said. “Just for a point of context, last year was like 4,000. Vera is 6,300 miles from her home and Jenna is six.”

Neighbors is unsure if that will be all the signees.

“We’ll see, I don’t know,” Neighbors said. “We have one more scholarship. That would probably be all, but there are a couple of names going around so I would like to have one scholarship available if possible. But nothing concrete yet.

• • • 

Neighbors was under the impression he was going to have some roster turnover.

“It started with the (NCAA) rule change mid-year, the multiple transfer rule,” Neighbors said. “The transfer portal, that’s been there forever in all times, but when we got that text that afternoon – and I think it was on Monday – that completely changed everything.

“It was at that point we all realized – me and a lot of other coaches – that you may have to replace everybody on your team every year.

“So that is when we started thinking ‘what if we lost X, Y or Z, everybody all the way down the list, what would we do in our current set of circumstances. Everything that we know.’

“So it became real apparent midway through the year that a lot of the things we were going to have to do would probably be in the junior college market and and the international market.

“So we started, started going back through our book at places we had been like when I went to see Phoenix or when I had seen Cristina.

“We started reaching our to our international contacts, our junior college contacts, which honestly for the last six or seven years was not part of air formula. But with where everything was headed, it was very apparent that it needed to be.

“So we basically starting looking at every position – what if we lost this person, who could be the closest person to come in and fill that? And that’s where each one of these kids kind of landed in one of those silos, buckets or whatever terminology that you want to use or whatever is possible I’m the business world today.

“They all kind of fit into one of those pockets. So it was right to that list, this is who need to call, let’s get on it and start working it.”

“These were the seven at the top of our list, some of them were a little more of a challenge to get to because of geography and language barrier at some points and times.

“The other thing the casual fan might not know – and I didn’t either until I got into it – is most of these kids graduate in December a lot of times. We are one of the few countries that go to school across the calendar.”

• • •

Neighbors also added a new assistant coach in former Fayetteville High star Nick Bradford, who played collegiately for Kansas and then got into coaching.

“He didn’t need much introduction around Fayetteville, that’s for sure,” Neighbors said. “He’s actually introducing me to people he has known his whole life. I thought I knew everybody in Fayetteville, but some didn’t cross over.

“I used to play with Nick’s brother coming out of college and in industrial leagues around Fayetteville all the time. So I have known Nick for a long, long time. I have obviously followed his career as a player and as a young coach. And I remember the day, I walked into a gym in Chicago and he was coaching Jersey’s team when they were real young.

“They were called the Missouri Surge and they were babies. Like seventh graders. I saw him and I was like ‘is that Nick Bradford over there?’ I didn’t know that he had started coaching girls. So that’s when I started to realize that this is a guy who is a little bit like me that didn’t initially in his career that didn’t think he would be on the women’s side.

“But there he was summer after summer working the grassroots, working the grassroots and then he jumped to Wichita State with one of his former teammates on the women’s side. And the was kind of my ‘I’m going to put Nick on this list. “We all hear about these lists that everybody says exist. Well, I have one. I don’t know if else does, but I have one in my bag.

“I put him on that list as one to watch when openings come along. To be able to get him back here where he is from, it’s great. I don’t have to introduce him at any spots around town. He is already a known quantity and in the game, too.

“He used his play form to make contacts in the grassroots side and on the coaching side the last few years and he the first one that came in and said ‘Keke is coming out’ and so it has provide us with another pipeline, another set of contacts, another set of experiences. It’s been real seamless. He doesn’t have to use a GPS here in town.”

• • • 

Neighbors offered up his recruiting philosophy in the current landscape of women’s college basketball.

“The philosophy, just to kind of add it up, is that we still want to do it with freshmen, too, as well,” Neighbors said. “We are not necessarily taking kids our of the portal to fill in one-year holes. Like Izzy, she comes in and she plays an then opens that spot back up for a freshman in ’25. We will do that with a number of positions.

“The footprint – Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma – anything within a tank of gas is what I have always said. To me that is considered our region. So we are going to recruit that region as hard as we ever have.

“There are some inherent challenges in that market that makes it harder for us. I think if you look back 10 years from now at the two different sets of criteria we are using, a lot of things change.

“So that is going to be our focus and our first level, the next level will be junior college if it makes sense and the third level will always be international students. With 15 scholarships, I would necessarily go 5, 5 and 5, but I don’t think I would get much different than that. That is about what it is going to be on a 10-year average.”

(Last updated: 2024-07-02 11:42 AM)