The song remained the same, even until the last screeching notes.
Arkansas’s first postseason basketball of any kind in the Obama tenure went about as you’d expect. The Hogs stormed into Bud Walton Arena for an NIT opener against Indiana State and really sort of electrified a half-enthused home crowd en route to a 20-point rout. They followed that by going to Berkeley to play Cal again, and thanks to it being late Monday night on spring break, not many people got to see them send a bunch of bad shots skyward. The Golden Bears pummeled the Hogs by 11, leading by well more than that until a late flurry trimmed the end margin to something more reflective of a competitive affair. Mind you, it wasn’t: Cal had 31 points before the Hogs broke 10, and even though Arkansas was clearly off-line from long range, missing 10 three-point tries in a row to start the game, the heaves just kept coming.
By the end of the game and season, Arkansas’s four seniors had amassed a whopping eight points, and sadly Coty Clarke’s fine two-year stint here ended with him going scoreless. That’s not an indictment of his leadership by any means, as the junior-college product quietly contributed in many ways to a 22-win season. But that goose egg does still offer a lens through which to observe the state of this union, as it were. Even the Razorbacks’ most consistent and mature player isn’t immune to a no-show, and that encapsulates not only this campaign but also the Mike Anderson tenure generally. For all the uplifting moments, the SportsCenter vignettes, here sits a team that is still pretty much in disarray.
Clarke’s absence will deprive Arkansas of one of its better “intangibles” players in the post-Corey Beck era next fall, at a time when the program needs something resembling Gibraltar. There’s athleticism aplenty on the roster that presumably will carry over to 2014-15, but we’ve been able to say that in many Marches before. What is the identity of Arkansas basketball now? This hashtag-heavy era of puffery places marketing weight on Anderson’s claim to commandeer the fastest team in the country, but nobody would accuse any of his three squads to date of playing with much composure. Would we not trade all this for “#smartest40” any day of the week?
Anderson’s leash is long, as it should be. He inherited a bad program and it has upticked slightly. That’s about the summation of it, and it’s not a particularly happy tale, but there it is. Had Arkansas fans been told three years ago upon hearing of Anderson’s hiring that three seasons later he’d have us winning an NIT game, the smirks and snorts of contempt would’ve been audible and numerous.
The basketball program is now in that bizarre territory where the football program has long resided: generally inoffensive and occasionally dangerous, but far removed from being any kind of regular threat. You’ll no doubt recall that the Hogs punished highly rated teams here and there under Houston Nutt’s watch, only to stub toes against lesser foes often, and in infuriating fashion. Now that the Hogs’ season is over, what is the net gain? That they beat Sweet 16 entrant Kentucky twice in overtime? That they nearly pulled off the remarkable takedown of Florida?
Where the curious disparity exists is in the grit-your-teeth-and-support-Anderson mantra relative to the enmity toward Bret Bielema. Arkansas hired an accomplished, relatively young and fairly well-respected football coach from a major conference for the first time in its history, and asked him to rebuild a program decimated by awful publicity brought on it by two head coaches whose combined efforts dragged the entire operation into the gulch. After a single 3-9 season, which was admittedly difficult to stomach but no less of a hair-pulling experience than the 4-8 campaign before it, some Hog “fans” are ready to throw Bielema on a pointy stake, tell him to take his boring-ass football back to the tundra, and hand the reins back to some hillbilly reprobate.
Anderson skates along seemingly impervious to such criticism. Will that remain the case next season? We can all speculate.