It’s been a maddening few months to be a Hog aficionado, but as this strange and often unnerving basketball season unwinds, the fact that we are hearkening back to historical markers is pretty telling.
Twenty years had gone by since Arkansas pinned a loss on Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Granted, Arkansas does not travel to that garish place every year, but it’s still a drought that has served as a microcosm of the program’s deterioration (and, simultaneously, as proof of the Wildcats’ dominance of late). That last win there, natch, was in the midst of the Hogs’ memorable run to the national title, and so anytime the magic digits “1994” are flashed on ESPN, it incites nostalgia and aggravation for us all at once.
There’s some real bittersweet irony, then, in the fact that the Hogs went to Lexington last week as a double-digit underdog and came out with a season- and possibly era-altering 71-67 overtime win. Obviously, Arkansas beating Kentucky is something that Hog fans contend shouldn’t send ripples, but the reality is that it does. We celebrated a narrow victory over a modestly accomplished team — the Cats promptly followed up their sixth loss with No. 7 at woeful South Carolina on Saturday — the way we might’ve rejoiced in … yes, 1994.
Different though the stakes may be, the impact isn’t. For Mike Anderson, the Hogs’ third road win of the season may have been the one that mattered the most for his long-term prognosis. He’s clearly had some pent-up disgust over the erratic manner of play his team has employed, evidenced by the fact that he never loses his cool even when circumstances practically beg for it. As the Hogs started faltering in the middle stages of the second half against Kentucky, it was looking like another one of those near-miss moments we’ve been seeing every few days this year.
But the Hogs were, as this column posited a while back, buoyed by recent changes in fortune. They could draw on two close-shave victories at Nashville and Starkville and understand that, amazingly, you are not out of the game when the other team pulls ahead by a few points with time to spare. There was remarkable resolve on display during those last, critical junctures of regulation that weren’t there in prior defeats: steady free throw shooting, smart and patient ball movement, and prudent doses of aggression on defense where bailout fouling might have once reigned.
For those reasons, once the Hogs managed to force that extra five-minute frame, the team’s makeup was decidedly different than it had been before. Coty Clarke drained a long three and four free throws, and when Kikko Haydar sank a couple more to punctuate a 16-for-16 foul shooting effort, that was the wraps. And it was satisfying, yet the understated rejoicing on court led you to believe it was nowhere near enough to placate the staff or its charges, and that may have been the best sign of all.
The carryover was evident this time. Having followed the home upset of the Wildcats with a pretty much illogical clunker in losing at Georgia in late January, the Hogs minded history (see thesis above!) and got nasty in the rematch. The Bulldogs’ seven-point first-half lead was built on false pretenses: They bagged 13 of 16 field goal attempts from all over the court early, and what happened the remaining 25 minutes or so was simply a matter of anomalies correcting themselves. Arkansas tuned its offensive game beautifully, and again Clarke was the catalyst, pouring in a career-best 23 in what ended up being a comfy 12-point win.
So that put the Hogs back in 20-win territory, hardly rarefied air nationally but, close to home, utterly meaningful. The last time they crested that modest hill was 2007-08, the first of John Pelphrey’s fated four years as coach, and they arguably underperformed to get there. This time, finally, there’s a sense that Anderson’s influence is being felt: A team that has played a lot of flawed basketball even in the last four weeks has nonetheless figured out how to scratch out wins in seven of those eight, and it’s that absence of perfection that seems to be fueling the Hogs.
They were turnover-prone at Kentucky and bullied in the paint, but mastered the nuances needed to overcome that; against Georgia, efficient play from Mike Qualls and Clarke offset the subpar showings of Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden. Imagine all of this coming together at once, and it frankly becomes pretty daunting, but the recent history of no-shows at the worst possible times also has to factor into the preparation as this season draws to a close.
Reflecting on 1994 is worthless if missteps in January 2014 aren’t also given due treatment.