By the time you burden yourself with these fresh Pearls, you’ll likely be all frothy with anticipation of the singular basketball stanza that will pretty much dictate how the postscript for 2013-14 is written. The Arkansas Razorbacks have scraped it together in February for a change, winning five of six to actually nudge upward in a jumbled SEC, and have therefore reignited a postseason flame that had all but been extinguished by a slew of seemingly fatal defeats early on.
What’s been even more bizarre is how the rest of the conference has shown itself to be thoroughly unwilling to take a firm grip on that third or fourth potential NCAA tournament berth. Florida and Kentucky are the lone firm entries in the field at this point, with the Gators likely claiming the top overall seed if they keep up their flawless run through the league slate. Missouri has been every bit the source of head-scratching as Arkansas has, and the third-place Georgia Bulldogs were so flaccid in nonconference play that they’ve made their surprising success to date largely irrelevant from the perspective of those who have received advanced degrees in accredited Bracketology programs across the continental U.S. or in Vanuatu and Guam. Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU and others have taken turns slipping on the ice.
The Hogs have managed to mesh a little bit and thrown together this spurt despite having made only mildly discernible on-court progress. The surge has undoubtedly been by way of soft scheduling: Arkansas has notched two road wins by all of six combined points, and should’ve frankly destroyed feeble Mississippi State last Saturday in a game that was played in some sort of barren Magnolia State trucking distribution center. Once again, this team proves that no opponent’s lead is too large to be tested, and that its own wide margins of victory can be pared down in a laughably predictable bit of late-game neural misfiring. They’ve slogged through home wins against the absolute worst teams in the field (Alabama and South Carolina).
It hasn’t been high artistry, but it’s been enough to get the Hogs back to .500 in SEC play and have them feeling reasonably comfortable about the forthcoming end run. Going on the road to Rupp Arena is the first and by far most imposing test, but the Wildcats aren’t coalescing quite as nicely as their record might suggest. They escaped LSU at home in overtime on a game-winning bucket by the supremely skilled Julius Randle and were substantially outclassed by Florida a week earlier, punctuating a month of fairly uneven play. Arkansas’s overall record is all of three games worse than Kentucky’s, and if the Hogs could execute a season sweep it should change the tenor of the discussion about the team’s NCAA chances.
There are three imminently winnable games behind that one, too, and even losing at Kentucky wouldn’t forestall the Razorbacks’ reaching 20 wins for the first time in six seasons. They sit at 18-9 as it stands, and with home games against fading Ole Miss and Georgia and a swing down to Bama at the tail end, here’s your utterly obvious, possibly throwaway comment of all-time: They could end up 22-9 and 11-7, scratching loudly at the tourney door, or fizzle so badly that another drab 18-13 or 19-12 finish is in the offing. Projection has never been this columnist’s forte, but that’s never been a real impediment before. Therefore:
Arkansas flatlines at Rupp Thursday night, losing by double figures. It’s a listless, discouraging performance, but it’s also the Hogs’ last loss of the regular season. They clean things up and beat Georgia and Ole Miss rather handily to reach the 20-win mark, then put together their best road effort of the season in punishing hapless Alabama. The sum total of it is a solidly third-place finish in the 14-team standings, but moreover, there’s a surge of teamwide unity built on the foundation of getting off the mat and closing strong for a change. And as a result, they enter the SEC Tournament feeling like there is something attainable in their midst.
I’ll confess to being utterly dismissive of the team a few weeks ago and recent events do not ameliorate any overriding concerns about the team. This squad still doesn’t rebound with great tenacity, shoots erratically from 17 feet outward, and has issues identifying its true go-to guy, particularly in moments where the opponent catches a spirited run. But sometimes the whole truly ends up being greater than the sum of the parts. If Arkansas can position itself well for the conference tournament first, then the percentage indices will improve commensurately and the overall mentality of a youth-laden team changes for the better.
And sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same: As it has been for two decades-plus in the Southeastern Conference, Arkansas has to prove itself against the bluebloods in the Bluegrass State first before it can even think about where spring break will be spent.