As has become custom in the overlap of seasons, this bag of Pearls is a mixed one. We’ll first address postseason for the gridiron Hogs, a favorable Texas Bowl slotting with onetime rival Texas on Dec. 29 that has more intrigue than any game between 6-6 also-rans would normally merit.
Texas scraped into bowl consideration after Charlie Strong’s first, tumultuous year in Austin despite four of its six losses being utter routs. The Longhorns were throttled by BYU, Baylor, Kansas State and TCU, but managed to do some things right along the way, too, escaping Big 12 play with a winning mark, though none of their five league victories come close to being as impressive as the Hogs’ two in SEC play.
Arkansas native Strong, hot off a quality stint at Louisville, spent the better part of the season weeding out disciplinary problems and learning whether he had playmakers at all. He ended up shepherding a turnover-prone (-1 cumulative for the year, largely a product of 15 lost fumbles) bunch, and discovering that the defensive side of the ball, where he cut his teeth, is feisty but lacking. The Longhorns are every bit as middling as their record suggests, with a young and gifted quarterback named Tyrone Swoopes, who actually played pretty well most of the year until a four-interception finale against the dominant Horned Frogs sullied his overall numbers a bit. John Harris was a dynamic receiver who logged four 100-yard games; the running back tandem of Malcolm Brown and Jonathan Gray is far from flashy, but nonetheless had fair production.
The Horns labored in the fourth quarter, yielding 114 total points after being fairly stingy through the first three, and the lack of experience and depth on either side of the ball ensnared them. To their credit, when the schedule lightened up in November, Texas seized on the chance and pasted Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State by a combined 95-36 before the TCU blasting dampened their spirits. In a way, their trajectory was eerily close to the one Arkansas mapped out: The Hogs got their bearings late, too, and had to settle on 6-6 after a final-game disappointment.
There’ll be a more detailed preview of this game in the Christmastime issue, but for now, it’s precisely what we reasonably could have envisioned: a yardstick for program advances against a longtime foe in a locale that presumably will persuade Hog fans to leave their own backyard for a quick road trip.
On to basketball for the first time this season: Arkansas has dipped in and out of the Top 25 with the same pace that Mike Anderson ironically fancies on the court. After a 6-0 start that featured no real signature moments, save for the requisite Mike Qualls aerials in cavernous Bud Walton Arena against lower-tier foes, the Hogs got two golden chances to show just how far they’d allegedly come and proceeded to squander both in an all-too-familiar way.
The first leg was to play Fred Hoiberg’s dagger-firing Iowa State Cyclones. Arkansas promptly fell behind by double digits within minutes, and even its own offensive virtues (better 50 percent from the floor and decent long-range marksmanship all game long) weren’t enough to offset a true no-show defensively.
It could have just been chalked up as the Hogs going up against a better opponent at the wrong time, but alas, the encore was a 68-65 overtime defeat at Clemson where the Razorbacks sputtered in every conceivable way, notably collapsing miserably in the final minute to the thoroughly mediocre Tigers. As had been the case for the first few games, Qualls and Bobby Portis both appeared, combining for 39 points and 13 rebounds.
The supporting cast flubbed it. Rashad Madden particularly earned the ire of fans with critical turnovers and a complete goose egg in the scoring column over 31 empty minutes, but again there were bizarre personnel choices underscoring that deficiency. With Madden was so terribly out of sync, why did he see that much action? Anton Beard and Manny Watkins weren’t too helpful but barely cracked 10 minutes of floor time, and junior college transfer Jabril Durham continues to sit while the likes of Madden and Alandise Harris are floundering.
And there’s the ever-present, and at this point, comically rhetorical question about why Anderson seems stubbornly defiant about playing Portis and raw but talented Moses Kingsley simultaneously. The latter has star potential since Portis’ offensive gifts are so diverse and draw so much defensive attention; Kingsley’s minutes and production, though, are barely up a tick.
Could be another season of frustrating flashes of brilliance and absurdity, and if it’s heavy on the latter, Anderson’s time here may be shorter than hoped.