There I was, feeling like such a heel.
Mere hours after penning arguably the most heavyhanded criticism of Arkansas basketball since this meager little column was birthed, I watched those damned Hogs go out on the Bud Walton Arena court Tuesday night and play with ferocity and desperation. Not only did they beat Kentucky, they did it in a fashion that pretty much belied Hog sports of late. The Michael Qualls putback dunk at the buzzer was equal parts acrobatic and poetic, a pride-swelling, capture-the-public-conscience sort of thing.
Social media blew up. ESPN anointed it with the Play of the Day and even days beyond. This was it, right? That signature singular flashpoint that just alters the landscape, finally and fully, for this woebegotten program.
Ha. Or LMAO. Or whatever you kids say.
With that self-made swagger barreling their chests, Arkansas set out on another jaunt to one of the SEC’s many cesspool outposts, slept seemingly 30 minutes past tipoff on Saturday, and got taken down by a flaccid Georgia team that tried for a good 40 minutes to allow the Hogs an exorcism of their road demons before finally tiring of the charade and winning overtime convincingly. Seriously, at a certain point about midway through the second half, as the Razorbacks kept heaving awful shots and fumbling away possessions with a modest lead, I was of the belief that Mark Fox’s Bulldogs simply wanted to absorb a loss just to get off the court and reconnoiter.
Yet, Arkansas simply refused to let Georgia lose. How inane does that sentence read?!
This was “it” for Pearls, I’m sorry to say. Long the champion of Michael Anderson, Sr., and that helter-skelter brand he has long studied and employed, the columnist wears the tarnished crown no longer. This isn’t outright advocacy for another coaching change, mind you, but a concession that this experiment has faltered even with all the sentiment and logic that accompanied it. Stan Heath and John Pelphrey had their best moments in Fayetteville, too, mind you, but got chewed up just about everywhere else. Anderson was supposed to preserve the long-held homecourt dominance while radically evolving the style of play to the point that it would make the team the intimidating party on the road rather than the pushover.
It has not worked. The old personnel and chemistry issues are threadbare excuses now, and scheduling is utterly favorable. Realistically, College Station, Texas, and Athens, Ga. don’t fall within the Top 75 or 100 most daunting college basketball environs in the country, and these Hogs were flat-out spooked in both locales. On Saturday, Arkansas slowly opened up a seven-point second-half lead and seemed to display a flicker of well-purposed frustration at its own woes. Fred Gulley, of all people, had a fine little outburst of eight straight points to carry the team to that 41-34 lead and at that moment, you got the sense that Georgia was teetering.
Fox’s brave little squad of no-names was, in fact, playing horrible basketball. Yet somehow, Arkansas managed to treat the opponent’s ineptitude as a twisted challenge to their status as the reigning kings of roundball self-immolation. The Hogs proceeded to score 20 points over the next 25 minutes of game action, and most irritating of all, with the score tied at the end of regulation they did not bother to run any sort of set play out of a timeout. Rashad Madden hoisted another long three attempt after dribbling around for a bit. It was a brick, and Qualls wasn’t in position for an encore rescue flush this time. Phenom Bobby Portis didn’t touch the ball on that possession, incidentally, and he’s getting squeezed out of the gameplan despite being the obvious premier talent on the floor.
Arkansas now has one of those weeks where you just notch the wall schedule accordingly. Trip to Tennessee on Wednesday? Obvious loss. Home tilt against hapless Auburn on Saturday? We’ll call it a win. Blah blah blah. There’s nothing enlivening about those results, and let’s just postulate that even if the Hogs beat a very average Tennessee team in Knoxville, they’re still sitting at 3-3 in a 14-team league where only the top four are likely to be NCAA tournament-bound.
When the enthusiasm is gone before February, it’s unlikely to appear again, and I don’t mean this season.