- Brian Chilson
- Bret Bielema (file photo)
Before Pearls breaks its brief silent treatment about Razorback basketball's latest bid to shake off listless irrelevance, we'll spend a word or two on the Belk Bowl, where the football team draws a Dec. 29 matchup with Virginia Tech in Charlotte.
The third middle-tier bowl for Bret Bielema will genuinely be the first where his Hogs are the inferior, underdog bunch. Prior clashes in Houston and Memphis afforded fans shorter car trips or flights to neighboring states; the reward was a Big 12 program (Texas, Kansas State) that had barely nudged its way into a 13th game by finishing 6-6. Arkansas dutifully dispatched both foes and the tenor about the program was indisputably positive. Arkansas ended 2014 with wins in three of its last four games, including unprecedented consecutive shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss, and then capped off 2015 by claiming five of its last six.
The mood's decidedly dissimilar now. An ugly and unforgivable loss at Missouri took the Hogs down a peg and left them at 7-5, the same mark they took to Memphis last year. But this time the quintet of defeats was of an unappetizing and discouraging quality, and the fact that the team went 4-5 over the final nine games substantially mutes the feel-good vibe. The offense was more enigmatic than lethal, and the defense was makeshift and shoddy, so this does not bode well against a Hokie team that went 9-4, won the ACC Coastal, and pushed power program Clemson to the final seconds in the league championship game.
Compounding the problem for the Razorback faithful is that this game has all the appearances of being undesirable for the common traveler. It's a harsh fact that Hog fans who felt stung by that Mizzou debacle are going to be hard-pressed to head to a noncontiguous state for a game against a much meatier foe playing a fairly short jaunt away from its own campus. Thusly, the challenge is substantial this time around, and if Arkansas wants to match the 8-5 mark of a year ago and haul some nice momentum onto the recruiting trail, it won't come routinely against Justin Fuente's first-year success story out of Blacksburg. He took the reins from Frank Beamer and overachieved behind a big, elusive and accurate transfer quarterback (Jerod Evans, who had 37 combined touchdowns against only 10 turnovers) and a typically stingy Bud Foster-led defense.
The less jaded view is that Tech really didn't have a jaw-dropping win all season, and the Hokies' prior neutral site test against an SEC foe was a Tennessee rout at Bristol Motor Speedway months ago. They're a competent and largely uninteresting team, and Arkansas has ample motivation after a topsy-turvy regular season ended with a thud.
On to basketball.
Mike Anderson's sixth year in Fayetteville begins very differently than any of the previous five. He's still generally viewed favorably by most around these parts, and he has rebuilt the roster and taken advantage of a rare glut of in-state amateur talent to compile a theoretically unprecedented 2017-18 recruiting class. That will stay in a single unified piece if this campaign can go well, and it's off to a fair start.
Having throttled Austin Peay by 31 to push their early season mark to 6-1, the Hogs look firmly entrenched as a potential tourney team on the strength of a highly touted crew of newcomers. But two-thirds of last year's dependable scoring nucleus, Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, also stayed put despite the latter feeling a brief flirtation with pro ball and returning when the scouts didn't bless him with a first-round grade.
Kingsley has started somewhat slowly and the team got bombed at Minnesota by a team of similar composition. But otherwise there's an honest-to-goodness team developing here: Depth, balance and discipline seem to be well on track after last year's team more or less crumbled due to its over-dependence on the aforementioned duo and graduated senior Anthlon Bell. Eight players are averaging at least six points per contest, and that doesn't include three promising and athletic forwards — freshman Adrio Bailey, transfer Arlando Cook, and junior returnee Trey Thompson — who are expected to contribute at a bigger clip as the season wears on. Bailey erupted for a team-high 14 in the rout of the Governors so the lean, 6-6 teenager may have broken through a bit after a timid beginning.
The test of how far this team can progress is how well guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford will mesh with the rest of the roster. Both JUCO standouts have had early highlights, with Macon putting up 15 in a blowout of Mount Saint Mary and Barford keying a comeback against Texas-Arlington with 13 of his season-high 17 points coming after halftime. They were both championed as critical components, as they're capable shooters but also rangy and active perimeter defenders.
If Arkansas can pull off 20-plus wins and make a spirited charge through a conference slate that's steadily getting stouter from top to bottom, the backcourt tandem must be linchpins at both ends. Hannahs is so deadly from three that he will command defensive attention, and that means Macon and Barford can both exploit opportunities if they employ good shot selection. So far, both have shown a reserved approach to gunning away from outside the arc, which is fortunate since neither is primarily regarded for his long-range accuracy. They're slashers and scorers, with good athleticism, cut from the Michael Qualls mold.
Anderson has to put a quality product on the court so the flagging attendance figures at Bud Walton will flip. It's typical for the place to look and feel cavernous in November and December with football and final exams depleting the student attendance, but if the team continues to vanquish these next five non-SEC opponents with flair and consistency, expect the head count inside the place to jump up dramatically. And that, in this business-first atmosphere that has enveloped college athletics, may be the best thing to ensure that Anderson's stock continues to trade high.