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 seventh year as an assistant coach in 2017-18.
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 joined his former coach 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 Razorback backcourt were visible immediately, 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 five 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 2017 that includes four of the top five players in the state of Arkansas, including three of those coming to Fayetteville as four-star prospects by ESPN.
Cleveland was also instrumental in the recruitment and development of Bobby Portis, as the sophomore 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 staff continued to bring Razorback basketball back to national relevance in 2016-17, leading the Razorbacks to a 26-10 record, a spot in the SEC Tournament Championship game and on the brink of knocking off the eventual National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels with the Sweet 16 on the line.
The Razorbacks posted the seventh most wins in program history last season, 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 six eventual NBA players: 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. His best game in the tournament came in the semifinals against LSU, when he had seven steals, which is the most by a Razorback against an SEC opponent in regular season or postseason play.
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. His 112 assists in SEC games ranks eighth on the Arkansas career charts, while he is ninth in career three-point field goal percentage.
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 communications, he is married to Ami (Watson) and the couple have twins: Caynen Thomas and Cayden James.