Arkansas will keep playing basketball past the Ides of March 2014. Whether you met that news with modest applause or audible scoffing is your call, but after the way the Hogs capped off the fixed portion of their schedule, it’s hard to muster anything but gross indifference.
The Razorbacks played their way to an inside track toward one of the final NCAA at-large berths in the unwieldy field of 68, then imploded in Atlanta as they have done many, many times before regardless of coaching regime.
South Carolina — mind you, losers of 19 games and likely a little dead-legged after beating Auburn Wednesday night —exacted superiority over the Hogs in every way over the final 30 minutes. Frank Martin outclassed Mike Anderson from a gamesmanship standpoint. Carolina knew Arkansas was soft in the paint and prone to being overly physical on the perimeter, so ultimately the Gamecocks parlayed those relative strengths into one more win in the tourney. Arkansas was worked over in the paint by some unheralded Lithuanian, and despite getting popped by the overzealous officials for hand-checks and such, the Hogs stayed in that mode, surrendered about 98 free throws, and ended up petering out at the end in the most critical game of the season.
This is why the Anderson era has been perplexing to many, myself included. The team’s obvious strengths and weaknesses remain so. Yes, it’s going to be hard to rebound when you are not manning the middle with much girth; but again, the baffling insistence on rarely putting Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley on the court together seems to be one of the most glaring of many curious personnel decisions that Anderson makes from time to time.
Then there was this moment late in the first half of the game, with South Carolina turning back an early and modest deficit into a slowly swelling lead. The Hogs were flubbing at both ends, so Anderson’s presumed fix was a lineup consisting of steady senior anchor Coty Clarke and four of the more nondescript players in the program’s recent memory (Rickey Scott, Jacorey Williams, Fred Gulley and Alandise Harris). At a juncture when the squad sorely demanded some offensive spunk, they were represented by an utterly punchless and puzzling array of role players.
Anderson’s leaving much to chance right now, betting on the come, thinking that every wart that pops up throughout a season will be Compound W’d with some rising frosh the next fall. The dependency on Bobby Portis this year was mostly met with great results and, in fact, Portis probably wasn’t leaned on enough. He has to reach another level of physical maturity so his frame is bolstered for hard contact in the paint, but honestly, Portis’ already copious production should balloon next fall.
Now, I guess, we hope that the thing that takes this team above the “sputters to NIT” stage is another young kid, Anton Beard, who happens to play point guard. There are numerous teenagers all over the country stepping into this role now, since predecessors are bailing on off to the NBA as soon as the scouting analysis is complete, so it’s not quite the position that requires mastery as it once was. Arkansas could excel with a Corey Beck again, a guy who will be rugged and fiery but will also complement that with basketball smarts. Gulley was too skinny and neutered offensively to matter. Rashad Madden ably accepted the role for now and progressed this fall for certain, but his money will be made on the wing and not in the pilot’s seat.
The NIT bid, all vexatious hand-wringing aside, we hope will be something good for the program regardless of how long the stint ends up being. Postseason basketball and all the additional practice time that accompanies it is a source of positive energy for a team that has been bereft of it for far too long. It was an NIT bid in 1986-87 that Arkansas slowly parlayed into something greater over the next decade; when the Hogs slipped in 1997 to an NIT berth, they ate it up, played their way to the final four, and got back to the NCAA tournament the next year. It’s not an ideal territory to be in, but it’s territory that can be mined for value.
Just realize that the value is plateaued. With the fans starved for success, the only real consolation for losing that shot at the big dance is a good three- or four-win run in this tourney. Ironically, doing that would give the team its most wins since 1995, so volume matters. A demonstration of pride and commitment, something unlike what Kentucky gave last year in tossing away a first-round NIT game at Robert Morris, would have consequence.