After a while, Nolan Richardson wasn’t even angry any more. Year after year, his Arkansas Razorbacks would win 25 to 30 games, terrorize opponents with their 40 Minutes of Hell, be praised for their ability to run and press all night. And year after year someone else would win Coach of the Year in the Southeastern Conference.
Hugh Durham and Tommy Joe Eagles. Lon Kruger and Richard Williams and Eddie Fogler. Williams again. Fogler again. Rick Pitino, he was always a favorite of the voters.
“I don’t need a damned trophy, and I don’t need someone to tell me I can coach, I know I can coach,” Richardson said one afternoon in his office at old Barnhill Arena. Not far from that spot, a state-of-the-art basketball facility was rising. It ended up being named after the Waltons, the first family of Arkansas, but make no mistake: It was built by Nolan Richardson.
“That old house over there will be my legacy,” Richardson said. “This style we play, that’s gonna be my legacy. They’ll be playing ball this way long after Old Nolan walks away and retires to the golf course. Maybe by then they’ll understand that this style of play doesn’t happen on its own. You need a coach to install it, to teach it, to drill it. It ain’t magic. One day someone will know.”
Someday arrived for Nolan in 1998, long after the Hogs had stopped dominating the SEC, when he finally got the damned trophy. But it also arrived Wednesday morning shortly after 10 a.m., when the votes were officially tallied and Mike Anderson — Nolan’s protégé, his old sidekick, his surrogate basketball son — was named Big East Coach of the Year.
Anderson won the award because his St. John’s Red Storm are an absolute living legacy to those old Arkansas teams that got after teams for 40 minutes start to finish, end to end, and did not let up until the light was extinguished from an opponent’s eyes. Let the record show it was Richardson’s Razorbacks that beat Pitino’s fabled Kentucky Wildcats to a championship, winning it all in 1994, two years before Pitino.
And let the record show that in 2021, in the Big East, Anderson’s colleagues know full well that the Johnnies’ style of play doesn’t happen on its own. Anderson played that way under Richardson at Tulsa, he taught it at Arkansas as an assistant and as a head coach, and also at UAB and Missouri. He has never had a losing record.
And he has become for St. John’s precisely what St. John’s has been looking for ever since Lou Carnesecca retired. In two years, Anderson has already changed the narrative along Utopia Parkway. The Johnnies might not always beat you, but damned if you won’t know they came after you, start to finish, end to end.
“We pick up 94 feet, we try and get steals, we try and put on a show on the fast break,” said Posh Alexander, who also earned some hardware Wednesday, named Big East Rookie of the Year and co-winner of Defensive Player of the Year. “We try to keep speeding up the game.”
It is a simple idea that required absolute commitment from every player on the roster, and the Johnnies have clearly bought in to Anderson’s plan. When he was hired two years ago, there were some raised eyebrows regarding how Anderson would fit in at St. John’s and in the Big East, after years in the SEC and the Big 12.
The answer, it turned out, was perfectly.
“We were 1-5 [in the league] and easily could have folded the tent,” Anderson said. “We went for he defensive side and put guys who were more connected on defense and that created offense and our confidence grew. We went on a great run and got popped in the head a couple of times but that experience is now kicking in.”
The Red Storm are 16-10 and have become a popular sleeper pick in the Big East Tournament. If they can beat Seton Hall Thursday for the second time in five days they will likely get a shot at Villanova. The Johnnies ran the Wildcats out of the gym Feb. 3 — and that’s when the ’Cats were at full strength, which they most assuredly are not now.
Even shy of that, there is genuine belief at St. John’s for the first time in years. Anderson has created that in less than two years. His old boss was right. It isn’t magic. Just damn fine coaching. And a damn fine coach.