I don't purport to be clairvoyant at all. One look at my prognostications for the 2012 football season where John L. Smith was at the helm should validate that.
But when Mike Anderson was hired to shepherd Arkansas basketball simply back to respectability, I had concerns. Namely, I felt that the athletic department set back football's progress in late 1997 when a search committee recommended hiring Houston Nutt when others with greater acumen and experience seemed desirous of the job. There was a homer angle to it, a rah-rah sort of thing that the late Orville Henry memorably bristled at, and it did not seem that a Boise State coach with all of four Division I wins would be the type of individual to construct a program from its roots outward. The real shame was that once Nutt was entrenched after a couple of decent years, it took controversy and fan fatigue to drive him away almost eight years later.
Anderson's hiring wasn't quite like that, to be sure. He had been successful at two prior stops, and he clearly had know-how to match his passion. In this case, his standing as the sentimental choice didn't make him an illogical one in the same stroke.
But where the Nutt-Anderson comparison resonates is in the results. As the departed football coach's tenure wore on, it became something of a dark comedy. There were farcical moments on the field that were emblematic of poor game planning, and Nutt fueled fan discontent by alternating between smug and petulant about almost everything for which he was questioned. The squad would be devilishly inconsistent, remarkable in stretches and hideous in the ones to follow.
Anderson's got his program on those same rickety rails as we speak. Arkansas basketball is by all rights worthy of being a ranked team and an NCAA Tournament lock, maybe even a second-weekend type of feel-good story, but it continues to flounder right after it soars. Talent is there, and it's not just in the form of Bobby Portis — easily the state's best homegrown product to don Hog gear since Joe Johnson — or Michael Qualls. You can look at this squad and get frustrated with guys who should be playing far, far better than they have been.
The Hogs were ranked early in the year, then got pounded at Iowa State and sickeningly toppled at Clemson a couple of days later. Returning home got their bearings recovered, they won two games to open SEC play, and had what appeared to be a puncher's chance of being 4-0 after last week, which would've likely vaulted them toward the Top 15 again.
Wouldn't happen, of course, because the first thing they needed to do was show homecourt fire on a road court, and that's been the Achilles' heel for far too long anyway. Tennessee had just been pummeled in Knoxville by a fair-to-middlin' Alabama team, but of course, when Arkansas comes out of your tunnel you get a lot more excited. For a good 30 minutes of action, the Volunteers were doing the usual bit, with untested guys sinking improbable jumpers and bouncing back to the defensive end with decisive and confident hops and chest-pounds. It added up to a big lead, and predictably, Arkansas looked utterly confused and defeated.
A late surge drew the Hogs within a point, and then freshman Anton Beard was gifted three free throws that he could have tied the game in the final seconds. Of course, he clanked them all, and the Vols ended up winning by 74-69. An aggravating loss to be sure, but there was the promise of recovery looming, obviously. Arkansas got to play Ole Miss at home, in a prime time Saturday night game, with about 18,000 plus bringing the din to Bud Walton Arena. Surely things would go just to plan, Arkansas would shake off the disappointment, and the Hogs would be sitting pretty at 3-1 and preserve their ranked status for another week.
This was, instead, the game that sent many leaping off Anderson's bandwagon for good. Arkansas lost, 96-82.
Ole Miss was deadly from tipoff, and rarely did the Rebels' shots get contested. An 8-for-9 showing would've been bad enough if the Hog defense had ever bothered to sport any semblance of its old aggression. But this is now a team that, bereft of leadership, simply goes through those proverbial motions even when the fans actually turn out to be the necessary buffer for that kind of thing. These Rebels, not nearly as physical in the paint as recent Andy Kennedy teams have been, just kept on penetrating, passing and pulling up from all over, and the 96-82 final accordingly was shocking only in the sense that it wasn't worse and that the Rebels' 56 percent floor clip was actually that low.
It was, in short, a humiliation, and one that reflected directly on Anderson. The team was unprepared, listless and thoroughly outclassed at both ends by a weaker opponent. So what did the coach have to say?
"In conference play, you've got to bring it and Ole Miss did something I didn't think they would, especially here. But they came in and they stole one."
"Stole one," Mike? And you didn't think they'd be motivated to win? This is what we've come to in college basketball. Teams are so disjointed from year to year that coaches now have the apparent temerity to say anything and it will make some limited degree of sense. Ole Miss played hard, Arkansas didn't. When that happens, the victor doesn't steal anything; rather, the winner happily accepts what the sad-sack loser hands over willingly. If you give Ole Miss credit for anything, it should be for sportsmanlike conduct in restraining their scoring in this glorified and unbalanced scrimmage.
I'm thoroughly flummoxed, but I'm annoyed, too. This is a time where Arkansas basketball should be preying upon its lesser foes, irrespective of cite. Instead, the team looks a whole lot like something John Pelphrey would've at least, to his credit, pitched a fit over being cursed to coach. Anderson winces and grimaces plenty but he's not getting through to his players any more than I am by screaming obscenities at the Samsung.