Arkansas basketball is such a weird, aggravating thing. I don’t know if the karmic tradeoff for one blissful year of “40 Minutes of Hell” was two ensuing decades of purgatory, but it sure seems that way.
The Hogs have been the archetype of inconsistency since the 1994 national championship, and to be honest, it began immediately. You’ll recall that the national champions were the presumptive favorites the following year as well, because they returned all five starters and just about every pivotal role player, too. So what happened? The Hogs did surge all the way back to the title game, losing to UCLA in a still-shocking rout, but it was a far bumpier road, and it started from the opener when John Calipari’s UMass squad throttled the Razorbacks in an early road test.
Calipari’s still a nemesis 20 years later, and he’s getting the last laugh even if the general public, Pope Francis perhaps included, is suspicious of his methods. Kentucky isn’t just getting the five-star guys year in and year out, but the Wildcats are now blessed with the thing that they didn’t have in the later years of Tubby Smith’s tenure and in Billy Gillispie’s utterly forgettable and brief stretch at Lexington: quality depth. Last week, dependable post Alex Poythress went down for the year with an ACL tear; Calipari put on his usual smarmy sheen about how greatly they’ll miss him (they won’t), and Kentucky stayed right in its cushy No. 1 position by destroying North Carolina.
That was Saturday at Rupp Arena. The joint was mostly full. Carolina, as traditional a power as there is, looked lost.
Saturday at Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas dispatched Dayton by the same 14-point margin that Kentucky disposed of the Tar Heels, amid a different setting. The arena was something around half-full at best, which is frankly inexcusable on a Saturday against a fairly high-caliber foe with football’s regular season now in the rearview. There’s an appreciable level of hype for this team despite two bad road losses in recent days, so where are the students?
At any rate, Bobby Portis is clearly the most gifted in-state product to don the cardinal and white since Joe Johnson, but he seems more inclined to embrace a leadership role than Johnson did. This year, his baby face has been often seen with more of a determined glare or scowl. He’s taller, a little thicker, and playing with more composure than he did in a steady freshman campaign. In every facet, the Little Rock Hall product looks like he’s taken to heart the role he’s being charged with carrying out, and as a result, Arkansas seems likely to advance farther this season if he stays that course and remains healthy.
In other words, he’s belying his years, which is exactly what has made Kentucky so good. Never do the Wildcats, despite being laden with teenagers, permit their alleged inexperience to show. On occasion they’ll play sloppy or not be in sync, but that’s largely attributable to a lesser foe playing at its highest possible plane. Take, for instance, Columbia, which frustrated Kentucky for a good 35 minutes before the Wildcats eked out a 10-point win.
That game was analogous, perhaps, to the Hogs’ prior bout with Clemson, save for the fact that Arkansas thoroughly and irrevocably gagged that one in the waning minutes. Again, Mike Anderson hasn’t been the cure-all for the team’s long-standing road issues. The Hogs are a clean 6-0 in their own yard, even if the place won’t get loud until sometime in January, and they do play with a different brand of spirit when the painted porcine floor is beneath their sneakers. That’s perfectly fine when you consider that scheduling tilts the home/away slate in favor of the former, but at some point the Hogs must establish toughness on foreign lands.
Portis seems like the conduit through which this could flow. He’s agile and multifaceted on the floor, and engaging and personable off it. Production is one thing, but being able to put your stamp on the program in this day and age of short-term stays is pretty difficult to do unless you have that panache. While there are still some deficiencies to his game — he’s notoriously shy about putting his back to the basket much of the time — he’s still easily the best player the program has had in a long while, and his home-state ties make him even more likely to thrive in the mold of a Corliss Williamson, who earned the “Big Nasty” moniker for a reason.
If Arkansas hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament and make meaningful progress in the spring slate of SEC games, he’s got to carry that torch. There’s no shortage of irony in the program being dependent on someone born 10 months after the Hogs stormed the floor in Charlotte while President Clinton proudly looked on.