FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has done his best publicly to treat today’s game like any other in his two years with the Razorbacks.
Anderson has said it is the next game in Arkansas’ Southeastern Conference schedule. It’s the next chance for his improving team to protect home court against a quality opponent. And it’s another opportunity to grab an important win.
But Anderson slipped during Thursday’s press conference in Bud Walton Arena, providing a true glimpse of what he’ll feel when pacing up and down the Arkansas bench today. It’s not often the coach refers to opposing players as his “sons.”
“They are my sons,” Anderson admitted. “You talk about family and I’m big on family with our players. They’re family for life. Whether they like it or not, they’re going to be family for life. So it will be interesting. It will be very interesting.”
Anderson will face his former team for the first time when the Razorbacks (15-9, 6-5 in SEC) play Missouri (18-6, 7-4) at 3 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena. It’s the first of two regular season games against the Tigers, culminating with what will be an intriguing regular season finale in Columbia, Mo., on March 5.
Most of the players Anderson recruited and coached during his five-year run at Missouri — which included an Elite Eight appearance — are no longer on new coach Frank Haith’s roster. But there’s no doubt Anderson will see some familiar Tigers.
It begins with point guard Phil Pressey, who is the son of Anderson’s best friend Paul Pressey. And Laurence Bowers, whose uncle is former Hog Arlyn Bowers.
So it’s sure to be an emotional reunion – for both sides.
“It will be weird playing against my old coach,” Bowers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week.
The two were part of Anderson’s last Missouri team in 2010-11. He left the program after a 23-11 season and early exit in the NCAA Tournament to return to Arkansas, where Anderson spent 17 seasons as an assistant for Nolan Richardson.
Anderson said at the time it was hard to leave his family behind after going 111-57 to help re-energize Missouri’s program. He kept track of them throughout the 2011-12 season, when a senior-heavy roster he put together went 30-5 under Haith.
The No. 2 seed bowed out of the NCAA Tournament with a first-round upset loss to Norfolk State, though. Anderson said he felt the loss in Fayetteville.
“I felt they were in position to do some really great, great things,” Anderson said. “Coach Haith had done a great job with them, but we all know about tournament play. That first game is the most important game. I was hurting for them.”
It won’t stop Anderson from trying to deal his former program a little more disappointment in the first meeting as SEC opponents.
The Razorbacks are trying to build off their first road victory at Auburn. The Razorbacks are 3-1 over the past four games, including an 80-69 win against then-No. 2 Florida that helped the Hogs improve to 13-1 in Bud Walton Arena this season.
Missouri, meanwhile, is gaining steam after some early-season injuries. The Tigers also notched their first road win of the season at Mississippi State on Wednesday night and hope to take another big step in Fayeteville.
So Anderson doesn’t want his Missouri reunion, which will play out in front of an ESPN audience and sold out arena, to distract his team from its challenge today.
“The emotions — that’s just about me — but this is an SEC game,” Anderson said. “It’s a big game. We’re in a race right now. So it’s a game at home and we have done pretty good in terms of defending our home turf. We want to continue to do that.”
But Arkansas guard B.J. Young knows today’s game is “personal” for his coach.
Young, a St. Louis native, said he’ll feel some emotions as well about facing the school from his home state. So Arkansas will be determined to grab another win.
“We want to take advantage of our opportunities and come out here and show them that we’re building something nice down here at Arkansas,” Young said.
Bowers and Pressey don’t need to know what the process is like.
They were part of it under Anderson’s leadership at Missouri.
The coach said he still talks to both players and saw several other former Tigers when he attended the school’s graduation last year. It was an emotional time for Anderson then. It’s certain to be another emotional moment today.
“I have no idea how my emotions will be,” Anderson said. “There will be some of those moments, though. I will say that. How it will be? I can’t say. …
“But there will be a moment there I’m sure as I see those guys.”
Missouri (18-6, 7-4 in SEC) at Arkansas (15-9, 6-5 in SEC)
• When: 3 p.m. today
• Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
• TV/Radio: ESPN/KABZ-FM 103.7
• Series: Arkansas leads 19-18; last meeting Arkansas 94, Missouri 91 on Nov. 28, 2007