FAYETTEVILLE — Lenzie Howell, perhaps Nolan Richardson’s most underrated player but superlatively appreciated by his Arkansas Razorbacks basketball coach, has passed away at 52, it was reported Sunday and confirmed by Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek.

“Family lost a great @RazorbackMBK with the passing of Lenzie Howell,” Yurachek posted on Twitter. “The 1990 NCAA Midwest Regional MVP who led Hogs to the 1990 NCAA Final Four. Instrumental in setting table for the tremendous success of the 1990s. Our thoughts & prayers are with his family”

Dallas native Howell was back in his hometown after a 12-year career playing professionally in Europe where he was twice the Dutch League’s Most Valuable Player.

Though never massively publicized like teammates Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and Oliver Miller, Howell, a junior college transfer 6-4 small forward, still contributed mightily in his two Arkansas seasons to Southwest Conference championship teams of 1988-89 and 1989-90. The ’88-89 team went 25-7 and two rounds deep into the NCAA Tournament

The 1989-90 team went 30-5 and advanced to the Final Four at Denver.

Neither team would have achieved what they achieved without Lenzie Howell, Richardson said Sunday. In fact for Arkansas’ 1990 NCAA Midwest Regional victories over Princeton, Dayton, North Carolina and Texas advancing the Razorbacks to the Final Four semifinals against Duke, Howell was named the Midwest Regional Most Valuable Player.

“He turned our program,” Richardson said. “He came in his junior year and played well and his senior year he really was the difference in us giving the opportunity to get to the Final Four. He gave us that chance to get there and he did.”

Richardson explained why Howell, scoring 14.6 points and averaging 7.0 rebounds his first year and 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds has second, so complemented guards Mayberry and Day and big man Miller as “a matchup nightmare” because of his high-leaping inside/mid-range versatility. Lenzie was fouled often because of his inside strength and quickness and made opponents pay with his high-arc free throws tallying 239 out of 313 at 76 percent.

“He was everything, a forward/guard,” Richardson said. “He had the ball coming down the floor like a guard and he rebounded, played very good defense and he didn’t turn the ball over a whole lot. And he could pull up and hit that short corner shot. That’s how our short corner was developed. He’d get in that little, short corner pull up and bam!”

Howell’s work inside opened the perimeter for Mayberry, Day and even Miller, a big man with a deftly soft 3-point shooting touch.

“Lenzie was very hard to match up with,” Richardson said. “Because if you tried to guard him with a guard inside he’d post up and jump over you. And if you guarded him with a forward he could pull up. He was a nightmare to guard. Just an all-round solid player.”

Actually even more than solid.

“He’s one of the best players I ever coached,” Richardson said. “For his pound for pound, inch for inch, he was maybe THE best because he could do so many things. I’ll never forget Lenzie.”

Richardson is just grateful the other Southwest Conference coaches didn’t remember Howell in recruiting before his two Arkansas years made them wish they could forget him.

For while playing both in high school and junior college right in Texas, the SWC coaches hadn’t recruited Howell, including Richardson.

“When I recruited him I actually was going to see another kid,” Richardson said. “But Lenzie caught my eye. He was the best player on the floor. I changed my mind on that other boy and I’m sure glad I decided to go the route to recruit the hell out of Lenzie. He and Pat Bradley (an unheralded guard from Massachusetts blossoming into the SWC’s 1996-1999 premier 3-point shooter) I saw both of them while recruiting other guys. They hadn’t signed with anybody. And we got them without anybody knowing how good they were going to be.”

As of Sunday afternoon, Richardson did not know Howell’s cause of death.

“I talked to Lenzie about three weeks ago,” Richardson said. “He called to see how he were doing with the COVID deal. He didn’t mention he was sick or anything was wrong.”

Jeff Dezort, Newton County Times editor, has worked at the newspaper since 2001. Before that he was a reporter, photographer and assistant editor of the Harrison Daily Times.

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