It's getting a bit alarming, but Pearls is starting to be effusive about the state of men's basketball at U of A, and that's kind of a rarity of late. Finishing 2013 with optimism was something we all hoped would be in the form of an overachieving football team scrapping for a win in a low-end bowl game, or a flourish of late-season commits, but listen, we'll take what we can get.
And what we've gotten, so far in 2013-14, is a hardcourt squad that is already more energized and focused than anything put on the surface of Bud Walton in years. The Hogs rose to 8-2 with a Thursday night drubbing of Tennessee-Martin, 102-56, and it was quite unlike the prior week's cupcake diet that we dissected in this space previously. Arkansas was sharp from the get-go in every facet, exploiting a size advantage and swishing seemingly every shot. Ball movement was crisp, spacing was perfect, and the whole thing had a machinelike feel to it.
Don't mistake the Skyhawks for a completely easy mark, as they had won four of five games coming in and probably felt like the Savannah State template could be cribbed with favorable results. But Tennessee-Martin came onto the floor and got swept up in a maelstrom of aggression led by Coty Clarke, who registered a couple of early jumpers and then converted a traditional three-point play to stake the Hogs to a double-digit lead only five minutes in.
Clarke's unsteady play to date had been just about the only thing we could categorize as a disappointment, and even then, the feeling was pretty marginal. But the 6-7 senior has too many unique gifts as a player, a terrific physical tenacity at both ends complemented by a worthy enough perimeter touch. Sensing that he had to start earning Mike Anderson's trust again, Clarke pounced on the opportunity and ended up with his best showing of the season so far (15 points on 7-9 shooting, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks). He was a handful all over the court and would've easily amassed a double-double had he been afforded more minutes.
It wasn't just Clarke working the low blocks, either. Moses Kingsley came off the pine to have the finest game of his young career, posting 12 points and 12 rebounds, and what seems to be an emerging trend for the freshman is his uncanny smarts around the rim. He hasn't logged a lot of minutes yet, but he's appreciably careful with the ball in congested areas, avoids silly fouls, and shows a little touch that is about a year or more ahead of what was expected. Kingsley copied Clarke's mega-efficiency with a turnover-free line that also included three blocked shots, and just in case he and Clarke didn't keep the interior edge sharp enough, there was Bobby Portis with another stalwart effort (15 points, nine rebounds and three assists).
So here was a game where three guys essentially bore the frontcourt burden for a night, again providing Alandise Harris with some relief as he labored a bit. Harris came out this season like a house afire and has cooled sharply in December, but he remains vital to the team's long-term progress. If a four-player inside rotation can get any two or three working well at a given time, then the foundation for a good performance is always going to be in place. The smart money down the line is for Harris and Clarke's experience to essentially be the ballast so that Portis and Kingsley can still have their freshmen moments, and if all four are getting in productive outings now, then Anderson cannot help but feel satisfied.
That leaves the backcourt, which as already stated here, is in markedly better shape now that Mike Qualls and Rashad Madden are in high gear from a development standpoint. They were each good for a respectable 11 points against the Skyhawks, and that largely came in the form of open looks after halftime when the game was already well at hand. But yet again, the ancillary support surged in, too — Fred Gulley even had a nice little game with a couple of jumpers, Kikko Haydar made his usual couple of treys, and even Rickey Scott was useful on some occasions.
With these pistons firing like they are, it's no surprise that Arkansas is verging on closing out nonconference play with a healthy 11-2 mark, and if that happens, the Hogs are burgeoning with swagger at the right time. Past seasons left us with a lot more mysteries at this point even if the record was still relatively clean. This team's got chemistry or a reasonable facsimile thereof building, and it's all going to be put to the test with the first week's worth of SEC games being at Texas A&M and then in Fayetteville for Florida and Kentucky, back to back.