FAYETTEVILLE — Finally returning this week to pack belongings from his house in Seattle, Mike Neighbors stepped out of a sweltering Arkansas summer into the Pacific Northwest cool of 50s at night and low 70s peaking the day.
Between leaving the comfortable cool of the Seattle summer to the $1 million he is contracted, according to the Seattle Times, to pay the University of Washington for exiting his head basketball coaching job coaching the Huskies women, does Neighbors have second thoughts coming home to Arkansas to coach the beleaguered Razorbacks women?
Neighbors in four Washington head coaching years went 98-41 taking the Huskies to one WNIT and three NCAA Tournaments including the 2016 Final Four and last season’s Sweet Sixteen.
By contrast, Arkansas has gone through two coaches, Tom Collen and Jimmy Dykes, with a cumulative 62-61 record the last four years. Dykes’ 18-14 debut went two rounds into the NCAA Tournament but was followed by 12-19 and 13-17 with last season ending in 11 consecutive defeats.
Neighbors never paused. Long before his first day coaching, the Greenwood native and former high school girls coach at Bentonville and Cabot and former Lady Razorbacks aide to former Arkansas Coach Gary Blair and assistant to former Arkansas Coach Susie Gardner through assistant coaching stints at Tulsa, Colorado, Xavier and Washington and four years head coaching Washington never ceased aspiring to head coach Arkansas.
“No question this is what I want ever since I was little-bitty,” Neighbors said. “I didn’t come home on a financial decision.”
He came home because he loves the Razorbacks, loves Arkansas and loves his two kids that as a divorced father in Seattle he couldn’t see nearly as much as he wanted.
Just to see his daughter, a UA senior, the day she was involved in an automobile accident and firsthand know she’s OK was worth the move, Neighbors said.
Of course returns when he can for “some home-cooking” in Greenwood.
Mainly, though he’s seen ballplayers and coaches.
“This is day 106,” Neighbors said Tuesday since Arkansas hired. “I spent the first 100 days focused on the people that are already in Fayetteville and the people we need to get to Fayetteville.”
He didn’t get all he wanted. Aaliyah Wilson, a freshman plagued by illness during the 2016-2017 season but nevertheless a McDonald’s High School All-American when signed by Dykes out of Muskogee, Okla., proceeded with transferring which she announced before Neighbors was hired.
Wilson eventually will play against Arkansas in the SEC joining the Aggies that Gary Blair coaches at Texas A&M.
In fact the most heralded recruits of the Dykes era, Wilson and Conway’s Jordan Danberry transferred as a sophomore last January to Mississippi State, coached by former Blair Arkansas assistant Vic Schaefer, are set to spend more SEC years playing against Arkansas than for Arkansas.
Neighbors had no qualms that Dykes released Danberry to transfer within the SEC as he had no qualms about releasing Wilson to transfer within the SEC.
“She (Wilson) had her mind made up and I am not one of those that ever wants to block a kid from going where they want to go,” Neighbors said. “A player that wants to transfer but stay close to home can be geographically challenged transferring out of conference.”
Neighbors re-recruited the returning starting nucleus: Senior guard Devin Cosper, junior guard Malica Monk of North Little Rock, sophomore guard Jailyn Mason and variously starting junior forwards Bailey Zimmerman of St. Vincent and Keiryn Swenson plus sophomore reserve forward Kiara Williams of Little Rock Central.
“I think we have a good nucleus,” Neighbors said.
Offensively, Neighbors said, “We like to play fast and shoot a lot of threes and shoot a lot of free throws.”
It seems that simultaneously shooting a lot of threes and getting fouled often enough to shoot a lot of free throws appear incompatible.
But Neighbors said his Huskies managed to do both.
“I do like layups, too,” Neighbors said.
For a 2017-2018 recruiting class that started with Dykes incoming freshman November signees Grayce Spangler, a guard from Fayetteville, and Macy Weaver, a forward from Stillman, Ill.,
Neighbors in the spring signed Malvern native Raven Northcross-Baker, a junior transfer from Chipola (Fla.) Community College, and Taylah Thomas, an incoming freshman forward from Arlington, Texas coached in high school by Kit Kyle Martin, Kit Kyle when she assisted Blair at Arkansas.
Compelled to redshirt as transfers not actively eligible until 2018-2019 but contributing already making others better in workouts, Neighbors said, are guards A’tyanna Gaulden, transferred from Florida State, and Chelsea Dungee transferred from Oklahoma.
“Raven’s a Malvern kid that I had seen in two back to back Arkansas high school tournaments,” Neighbors said. “I know she’s a winner. We were very lucky she was still unsigned. And we were very lucky that Taylah Taylor hadn’t signed.”