Basketball season's behind us, spring football practice hasn't culminated yet, and baseball hasn't quite revved up to the ever-beguiling postseason, so Pearls this go-round is a bit of a hodgepodge. But we'll start by extending a belated commendation to Jeff Long for rectifying his worst mistake in a decade as Arkansas athletic director with what may prove to be his best hire.
In this space three years or so ago, the sheer bewilderment at the hiring of Jimmy Dykes as women's basketball coach was evident. This was, in a sort of roundabout way, a Houston Nutt-caliber decision, bringing in a wholly unproven rah-rah guy with Arkansas ties to try to reshape a program in tatters. For a spell, it seemed to work, but Dykes ultimately ended up with a 9-23 SEC mark the past two seasons because highly touted players transferred away and a woeful lack of depth caught the team flat-footed in a brutal conference that ended up boasting the national champion and runner-up.
Dykes was gracious in his exit, thankfully, and even more impressive is that he effused proper praise for Long's choice of successor. Mike Neighbors is sort of the roundball version of Gus Malzahn around these parts, except he's exceedingly authentic and not some sort of charlatan opportunist.
Neighbors' roots here are well known: He's a Greenwood native who rebuilt two high school programs as an up-and-comer in the 1990s (Bentonville and Cabot) before taking a shot at working his way up the collegiate ladder. And he did that handsomely as director of basketball operations at the UA for a spell before being a top assistant at Tulsa, Colorado, Arkansas again, Xavier and then Washington.
There was an obvious pattern developing at all these stops, which is that recruiting and player development (areas where top assistants excel) all ticked upward. And Neighbors was accordingly rewarded in 2013 with the head-coaching job at Washington, and the program thrived. The Huskies made the NCAA Tournament the last three of those years, notched their first-ever Final Four berth in 2015-16, and boasted the all-time scoring champion in women's college basketball in do-everything guard Kelsey Plum.
It's no wonder that Neighbors, with his approachable attitude and 98 wins over four years in Seattle, was Long's top target this spring when Dykes' resignation under pressure created the vacancy. Getting back home meant a lot to the 47-year-old Neighbors: He paid his former employer a $1 million buyout after barely earning that much over the four seasons he held the job, and gushed about the dream job he was taking. That's kind of a big deal for Hog fans who feel like Long's long-distance gambles in various coaching hires have fallen short.
The hiring of Neighbors looks a little like the investment in Mike Anderson six years ago. It has plenty of regional cachet and it has that indescribable "right guy" feel to it, and it has the appearance of a long-term win for Long, who needed one desperately.
Dave Van Horn has one of the most potent lineups in all of college baseball right now, but the Hogs' two recent series losses to LSU and Auburn exposed the fact that their pitching arsenal isn't necessary quality depth at this point. Being 32-10 and 12-6 in league play (best overall mark and tied for the second-best SEC record) remains an appreciable improvement from last year's sub-.500 debacle.
That said, Van Horn watched rather helplessly as Auburn, not one of the conference's better hitting teams, pounded Arkansas's starting pitchers to the tune of a whopping 15 runs over only five-plus innings of collaborative work. The bullpen was roughed up Friday and Sunday in the two losses, too, and Auburn third baseman Josh Anthony, who entered the weekend without a home run and with a modest average of .258, raked nine hits in 12 at-bats including his first bomb on Friday and two singles and two doubles on Sunday.
Arkansas has a lot of so-called live arms on the roster, but not many of them have considerable experience. The two most seasoned pitchers, Dominic Taccolini and Josh Alberius, have had their share of struggles, and that's typically been a byproduct of control woes. Cannon Chadwick lost the closer's job after a memorably bad ninth inning against LSU, then seemed to rebound against Auburn with a win in middle relief. Trouble is, he was gassed when he was summoned on Sunday again, and took the loss after failing to record an out.
As Arkansas winds down its rather fortuitous schedule with a road series against the worst team in the conference (Tennessee) and three against flawed middle-of-the-pack squads (Ole Miss and Vanderbilt at home, and the regular season finale in College Station, Texas against A&M), pitching coach Wes Johnson has to find some problem-solvers who are of particular need on Sundays. It seems that Alberius hasn't locked down that third starter gig at all, and guys like Kacey Murphy and Jake Reindl want a fair shot at more innings down the stretch. If the Hogs are going to win the West — the Mississippi State team they swept to open the conference slate has surged to 13-2 since — then it's going to rest on the shoulders of some young guys who deserve a crack at solidifying a weak rotation.