Brian Chilson

Arkansas has had a curious history in the SEC men’s basketball tournament. The 1994 national champs were ousted from it by a stellar Kentucky squad, and when that happened, it seemed to provide a spark as the Hogs spent the next three weeks wiping out their competitors to claim the ultimate crown.

The 1995 team went to the championship round against Kentucky, built a massive lead, then floundered badly in the second half and overtime, a collapse that knocked the defending champions down to a No. 2 seed. They largely overcame that and nearly captured another national title despite never having won the SEC tourney.


As the program started to gradually flounder in Nolan Richardson’s final years, there were rumors after a 16-15 campaign in 1999-2000 that his job was in jeopardy, but that little engine that could, did. Four wins in four days over salty competition led the Razorbacks to their first conference title in the least likely fashion. And that remains the lone title the basketball program can claim after more than a quarter-century of competing in it, although in fairness, a couple of other recent teams got to the finals and played respectably for a couple of days.

The 2018-19 Hogs seemed to be most like that championship squad, muddling erratically through the regular season but finishing regular-season play strongly with three solid victories against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Alabama. A lot of people, myself included, felt like that surge — which came on the heels of a baffling and disappointing six-game skid that dropped them to .500 overall — might be a turning point for this bedeviling young team and the bracket shaped up kind of nicely, too. First-round foe Florida arrived in Nashville in a terrible slide, putting their NCAA tourney hopes in serious jeopardy, and a potential second-round matchup would have most likely been against LSU, a team that surprised everyone to claim the top seed in the field, but also playing in a shroud of controversy with its head coach and one of its most dynamic players suspended due to the ever-ongoing pay-for-play scandals that have engulfed the collegiate landscape.


How foolish, of course, to think anything so demonstrative about this team.

Arkansas got off to a fairly great start Thursday afternoon in its opener against the Gators. After clanking three early ill-advised long shots, the Hogs seemed to settle in and establish the pace against a Florida team notorious for trying to grind the game to a halt. In the Hogs’ first matchup against Florida, Mason Jones scored a career-best 30 points and tried to singlehandedly bring the Razorbacks out of a deep offensive funk. Florida wound up holding the rest of the Razorbacks to a combined 21 points and winning that one narrowly 57-51. Jones was largely ineffective in this one, but the Hogs were hot out of the gate, hitting 10 of 13 shots during one stretch and seemingly controlling the pace.


The Gators clawed back gradually, though, and their defense started bottling up the Hogs over the last few minutes of the first half. Once again, Hog-killer and North Little product KeVaughn Allen helped trigger the surge with a couple of baskets and a long three in a short run and Arkansas suddenly found itself down 30-28 at half. And things only got worse from there.

Despite Daniel Gafford awakening during the first part of the second half to get some emphatic dunks, the Hogs started to slowly lose control of things. Their perimeter shooting was, yet again, mostly well contested or otherwise ill-advised, and the frustration over some dicey officiating began to boil over. This is a team that works hard but lacks composure, and while most attribute that to the team’s collective immaturity, there’s a really unsettling thing that became evident as the Hogs succumbed quietly to the Gators 66-50 as the game went out of control late: If Arkansas returns this entire team next year, plus a couple of signees, does anyone feel like the direction of the program is trending the right way?

Mike Anderson looked helpless as ever on the sideline. As decisive calls went against his team, he did what he usually, aggravatingly does: winced, made some arm gestures, and shook his head. Anderson, to be quite candid, is lacking in passion and acumen, and if this team goes to the NIT, don’t expect the results to change. This program is stagnant and uninteresting.