Florida and Ole Miss both exposed the gross deficiency of an Arkansas team that still has NCAA Tournament designs, and yet the Razorbacks managed again to eke out a split of the two games.
The Gators have been reborn after a rough nonconference slate and they pummeled the Hogs at Gainesville, a place that has tormented the visitors from Fayetteville like few other venues. A 23-year, 12-game drought at the O’Connell Center for Arkansas persisted after the hosts rolled 88-73 last Wednesday, anchored by North Little Rock product KeVaughn Allen’s 28-point outburst, which came on the heels of one of the worst stretches of the junior guard’s career.
If we’ve learned anything as Hog fans, it’s that the expats who leave the state and get an opportunity to punish Arkansas will do just that at every turn. I recall as a youth watching Carl Lott, a Marianna-bred gunner who drew scant attention from the Hogs and ended up at TCU, catch fire at Barnhill Arena in the infancy of the three-point era to lead his Horned Frogs to a surprising road win, and that kind of grating episode has played out for a good three decades since at varying times.
Allen borrowed from that script in front of his crowd and the Hogs never could narrow the margin much in the second half, as the 15-2 run that Jalen Hudson and Allen keyed with long triples in the first half proved essentially fatal. Arkansas ironically received excellent production from its de facto Big Three, with Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Daniel Gafford accounting for 55 of the team’s pedestrian 73-point output, but obviously that tells you how underwhelming the role players were.
With that game unfolding in such a sorry fashion, Arkansas again recaptured its cliched but essential sense of urgency when it returned home Saturday to take on a middling Ole Miss team. Notably, the aforementioned trio did its job with 58 aggregate points, but the 39 points provided by the supporting cast proved to be sufficient, albeit barely. Fighting off a late barrage of Rebel threes with Macon’s deft free throw shooting, the Hogs secured a 97-93 win to move their record to a respectable 13-6 and 3-4 in SEC play.
It is, of course, still noteworthy that for the fourth time in four conference games at Bud Walton Arena, the Hogs were several notches below dominant and were so bad at shutting down the perimeter that it felt like a mediocre TV movie replaying itself. Despite having some fairly exceptional crowds on hand to watch, the Hogs have managed to be ragged in their own house, with three wins by a combined eight points and that horror show 21-point loss to LSU. That’s contributed to an average minus-6 point differential through the first seven conference games, which hardly instills confidence in the Hogs’ prospects going down the stretch.
The Arkansas defense is, as it was for a great portion of last season, just not helping matters. This squad is talented enough to be back in the Top 25, but it’s clear that being ranked does precious little to motivate, so staying on the periphery of the rankings will be just fine. Arkansas has yielded an average of 85 points over six defeats, and frankly, that scarcely communicates how flat the team has been in those games. Only the Mississippi State loss ended up being by single digits, and the Hogs yielded a late lead in that one.
Coincidentally, the Hogs started to gather themselves a year ago when the Oklahoma State Cowboys, largely an undistinguished bunch under then-coach Brad Underwood, slapped Mike Anderson’s lethargic bunch around in a 28-point beatdown at Stillwater in the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge, which at the time seemed an affirmation of just how weak the latter conference was on a national scale. The Hogs were 16-4, 5-3 going into that game, but unranked and largely unheralded due to a rather flaccid strength of schedule.
Fast-forward a year and the Hogs will host the Pokes again in that midseason cross-conference gimmickry, and go figure, even if they eke out a road win at Georgia first, they’ll go into the game with a lesser overall record but a far better tournament profile than last year. The same warts exist, though, which is really troubling: After surrendering 99 points to the Cowboys in that loss, the Hogs beat Alabama before getting beaten by a lowly Missouri team and then taking a surprising home loss to Vanderbilt, a game that more or less mirrored this January’s lay-down against LSU.
Arkansas responded to that challenge with fury, winning six of seven league games and then two in the SEC tourney, cementing itself as a postseason participant with 25 overall wins. Barring a miracle, the Hogs won’t hit that mark this time around but likely will not have to, either. Thanks to the wins over Oklahoma, Fresno State and Bucknell (and to a diminishing extent, Minnesota and Troy), Arkansas has a better-than-average nonconference sheen. This year, afforded the opportunity to host an improved Okie State and sweep the two flagship schools from the neighboring state, Arkansas could exit January with 15 or even 16 wins if it can knock off Texas A&M next week in College Station, and all things considered, that would keep the Hogs on the right side of the so-called bracketologists’ collective assessment. Even with a sub-.500 SEC record thus far, the Hogs are a consensus higher seed on the first two days of the NCAA Tournament for the moment.
But that offers little comfort. Anderson’s two best teams of the seven he’s fielded in Fayetteville are the ones that thrived on a perception of disrespect and they excelled seemingly whenever the word “bubble” was employed by the pundits who were gabbing about their postseason chances. Regardless of whether that terminology is used in February and March of this year, the Hogs have to play like they’re being considered a nonentity because it’s worked in the recent past.