We're still deeply engrossed in the Arkansas men's basketball campaign, but first, Pearls has a word on a couple of other ongoing February sports on the hill.
The women's team helmed by first-year coach Mike Neighbors has, unquestionably, had its share of struggles, a fate which was to be expected after Jimmy Dykes did precious little to stock the cupboard in three years of underwhelming performance. Neighbors' coaching pedigree and affable nature weren't ever going to be sufficient to overcome the personnel shortage he had on the court, but rather admirably, the Razorbacks have pressed on to the conference tournament in Nashville after suffering through a six-game season-ending losing streak that happened right on the heels of a nice road win against Alabama that put them briefly back above .500 overall.
Neighbors' team isn't likely to stay in the Music City long, starting with a Tuesday game against the very Vanderbilt team that hosts the tourney and beat Arkansas in a Sunday finale. The Lady Commodores have suffered through an uncharacteristically miserable 7-23 season as well, so it's not beyond the realm of reason that Arkansas could shake up the bracket a bit by winning Tuesday and even play its way into a spoiler position with a win Wednesday against Texas A&M, which put a recent 44-point pasting on the Hogs but isn't quite the national title-caliber team it has been in recent years.
Regardless of results and circumstances, the rough ride that has been 2017-18 is soon over and Neighbors is fortunate to have generally all of his best players returning, with an eye toward securing some in- and out-of-state prep talent shortly. He'll need every bit of it to take some appreciable steps toward improvement next season; with the league presently being dominated by Mississippi State and with programs like Tennessee and LSU showing signs of a resurgence to prominence, Neighbors may have the hardest job of all of his contemporaries in Fayetteville. Yet he may be the most competent and capable of taking that climb.
Arkansas's Top 5 baseball team, meanwhile, has had to wrestle with the possibility of enormous expectations since it bowed out of the NCAA tourney after a hard-fought Regional last summer. These Hogs are well-stocked offensively with veterans who have tasted success and their rotation remains anchored by Blaine Knight at the top, but a four-game West Coast swing to take on some formidable teams from that region didn't quite go as planned. The Hogs' bats were largely ineffective after they plated an unthinkable 49 runs in three home wins over Bucknell to start the season; a 2-2 record followed, with the Hogs narrowly defeating Arizona and San Diego State and losing one-run games to Cal Poly and San Diego in the Tony Gwynn Classic.
Arkansas will slip a little in the rankings due to the ninth-inning breakdown against Poly and a late comeback ending up a little shy on Sunday against the Toreros. The Hogs' bats and gloves betrayed them a bit, a fate which is far better to occur in late February than late April, and not the sort of thing we should expect from a Dave Van Horn team as a season drags on toward hotter, but better, conditions. Pearls will keep tabs on this situation and reassess once the men's basketball season concludes.
And on that note, while Mike Anderson's Razorbacks remain enigmatic, they've figured out how to make an impact on the number-crunchers who will be placing them in a likely remote location in two weeks for the NCAA tournament. You can basically overcome a bad mid-week performance — in this case, the Hogs were utterly listless in the last 10 minutes of an 87-72 loss at home to Kentucky on Tuesday night — if you show out on Saturday. And the Hogs keep doing that, claiming their sixth win in the last seven on the weekend, going into Alabama and putting a fine little dent into the Crimson Tide's tournament chances with a 76-73 escape from Tuscaloosa.
Heading back home, Arkansas will engage in one last two-step including Senior Night at Bud Walton Arena against the Auburn team that could very will win the SEC and be its flagship team in the NCAA tournament, and then a road trip to Columbia, Mo., for a final date with a Tiger team that keeps moving inside and outside the proverbial bubble, and enters the final week of the regular season riding a decidedly untimely three-game skid. The Hogs aren't exactly surging, if you want to find a way to characterize things, but a 5-1 record over their last six SEC games does mean something, considering that their 20-9, 9-7 record is good enough to comfortably enter the tourney field now, and three or four more victories spread across the last two regular season games and the SEC tournament would only enhance seeding.
Of course, a middling effort would likely beget a middling seed, yet again, because analysts presently have this team pegged in between the 7 and the 10 in the field. What that obviously means is that if the Razorbacks survive the opener as they did in 2015 and 2017, they're headed for a second-game date against one of the nation's present elite programs. Barring, mind you, any immediate and severe sanctions for any of the numerous teams facing FBI scrutiny at the moment.
The Alabama game was a perfect microcosm of this season. Arkansas looked fluid early, stalled for a good stretch late in the first half and early in the second, found a serious late-game groove, then had to withstand Bama's desperation heaves. It was maybe the finest game of unheralded senior post Dustin Thomas' season, and considering how much help he gave the Hogs' beleaguered front line last February and March, it's nice to see him peaking again.
Where the fate of the team rests, of course, is on Daryl Macon's steady hand, Jaylen Barford's curiously disappearing one, and the lean but sturdy frame of freshman Daniel Gafford. We could beat this proverbial horse to death, granted, but Gafford's impact cannot be understated. Against Alabama, his 11 points and seven boards had the appearance of being modest, but it seemed as if every basket he made was a momentum-shifting one, particularly the emphatic dunk he threw down to give the Hogs an eight-point edge with a bit more than two minutes left and Alabama seemingly fishtailing.
Gafford's foul problems have, off and on, hampered his production. But the beauty of that is his minutes have been limited, whereas another freshman impact player like Trae Young of Oklahoma is showing the ill effects of being forced to carry a team for 35 minutes or more each game. Gafford still appears fresh, and well suited to contribute in March as a result, and that gives this unpredictable team a certain degree of steadiness that it sorely needs as the regular season winds down.