A former Razorback and one of the best young recruiters in the nation, TJ Cleveland returned to the University of Arkansas in 2011 and is entering his eighth year as an assistant coach in 2018-19.
A 15-year coaching and staff veteran since his playing days at Arkansas, Cleveland’s career path back to Fayetteville mirrors that of his mentor, Mike Anderson.
A player for the Razorbacks from 1998-2002, Cleveland joined Anderson’s staff at the University of Alabama-Birmingham upon graduation as a video coordinator and was named an assistant coach prior to the 2005-06 season. Cleveland then joined Coach Anderson at Missouri for the 2006-07 season and, in five seasons with the Tigers, became known as a tireless worker and recruiter as well as one of the up-and-coming young coaches in the college game.
Following his third season with Missouri, Cleveland was asked to participate and was featured at Nike’s Top Up & Coming Assistants Villa 7 Consortium. He has since been featured at Villa 7 five times.
Cleveland’s efforts with the Arkansas backcourt were visible immediately upon his return to Fayetteville, as the Razorbacks improved their turnover margin by 200-percent, which moved them from 101st in the nation to 19th in a single season. In four of the last six years, Arkansas has led the SEC in both turnover margin and steals, statistical categories that are synonymous with Anderson’s “The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball.”
His relentless work on the recruiting trail has helped land a top 25 class in both 2017 and 2018, featuring seven of the top players in the state of Arkansas over the two-year span.
Cleveland was also instrumental in the recruitment and development of Bobby Portis, as he became just the second Razorback in program history to be named the SEC Player of the Year by both the Associated Press and league head coaches in 2014-15. Portis was the first Razorback to surpass 1,000 points and 500 rebounds as a sophomore and went on to become the 12th player in program history to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, when he went 22nd overall to the Chicago Bulls.
The Arkansas coaching has put the program among the national conversation as the Razorbacks have played in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and collected at least 23 wins each year.
Last season, the Razorbacks led the league in 3-point field goal percentage (.396) while ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio, field goal percentage, scoring offense and fewest turnovers per game. Senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, each of whom signed NBA contracts after the 2017-18 season, played a key role in those statistics. Barford led the lead in field goals made and points per game. Macon led the league in free throw percentage and dished out 138 assists.
The Razorbacks posted the seventh most wins in program history in 2016-17, as the coaching staff led the squad to 12 SEC wins for the fifth time in school history and captured six conference road victories, tying the 1994 championship team and the 2015 NCAA Tournament squad for the most in the SEC era. The Razorbacks ended the season 8-3 in their last 11 SEC road contests, the best stretch since the end of the 1993-94 and beginning of the 1994-95 seasons. Arkansas used its second best free throw percentage in school history (.761) to post a 4-0 record in games decided by one possession and a perfect 24-0 mark when leading with two minutes left in the contest.
During his tenure with Missouri, Cleveland worked predominantly with the Tigers’ guards, and players flourished under his tutelage. In 2006-07, Cleveland’s first season at Missouri, he mentored Stefhon Hannah to Big 12 Newcomer of the Year accolades. Another Cleveland trainee, J.T. Tiller, took Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008-09.
Executing Anderson’s style of play from the guard position has been instrumental in the team success that Cleveland has enjoyed both as a player and coach. Missouri ranked second in the nation in turnover margin for three straight seasons and led the nation in steals in 2010 (10.9 per game) and assists in 2009 (18.4 per contest). Cleveland’s last team at Missouri ranked second in the nation in both steals per game (9.7) and turnover margin (5.4). The Tigers also ranked among the nation’s top 30 in five other statistical categories, including scoring offense (10), assists per game (15), assist-turnover ratio (24), blocked shots per game (26) and scoring margin (27).
Cleveland’s coaching career started at UAB where he worked his way up from video coordinator to assistant coach. In his one year as a coach with the Blazers, UAB advanced to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and ranked third in the nation in steals per game at 10.9 per contest. UAB also led Conference USA in assists, assist-turnover ratio, turnover margin and field goal percentage, while ranking second in scoring, scoring margin and steals. Former Blazer Carldell Johnson ranked ninth in the nation in assists per game that year with 6.3 per outing, while also ranking 20th with 2.6 steals per game.
During his time at UAB and Missouri, Cleveland worked with seven eventual NBA players: first round draft pick Bobby Portis (Chicago Bulls), Donell Taylor (Washington Wizards), Squeaky Johnson (New Orleans Hornets), first round draft pick DeMarre Carroll (Brooklyn Nets), Kim English (Detroit Pistons), Marcus Denmon (San Antonio Spurs) and Phil Pressey (Boston Celtics). Cleveland was also a teammate of current Utah Jazz guard and NBA All-Star Joe Johnson, as well as Charlotte Hornets guard Jannero Pargo.
As a player for the Razorbacks, Cleveland was instrumental in Arkansas’ run to the 2000 SEC Tournament title, the only SEC Tournament championship in school history. During Arkansas’ four-day run to the tournament title, Cleveland scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished 10 assists and had 11 steals, all off the bench.
During Cleveland’s four-year career at Arkansas, the Razorbacks compiled a 76-50 overall record and made three trips to the NCAA Tournament. A two-year captain, Cleveland led the team in steals three times in his four seasons in Fayetteville and currently ranks tied for fifth on Arkansas’ all-time steals list with 226. Cleveland led the Razorbacks in assists two times and three-point percentage in 1999-2000.
As a prep player for Minor High School in Birmingham, Alabama, Cleveland was an all-state and all-metro player as well as the MVP of the state tournament as a senior when he led his team to the state championship.
A 2002 graduate from Arkansas with a degree in communication, he is married to Ami (Watson) and the couple have twins: Caynen Thomas and Cayden James.