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Dark days in Hog-land



A week ago, right here, Pearls dipped its toe into the prognostication waters ever so lightly, projecting a couple of modest year-end benchmarks for a Razorback basketball team that was in another swoon. I suggested that the team would take not one, but two games in Nashville, then march into the NIT with heads high.

Another big hack, and another pronounced whiff on my part. Gotta stop trying.

Arkansas gagged again on another team's floor, and was solely responsible for its own pitiful showing. For as mediocre as Vanderbilt has been all season, it is a Division I college basketball team, and by extension it can generally hit 20-footers if afforded chances to do so. The Hogs had three moribund performances against the sub-.500 Commodores this year, winning the first by 23 points only because Vandy was historically inept in its own right. In the SEC tournament, with enough at stake to justify 40 minutes of passion, the Razorbacks summoned...about 3½. And they found it far too late in the proceedings for it to matter.

The insult of another quick exit from the conference tournament was followed by an uncomfortable three-day stretch where Vandy unexpectedly smashed Kentucky, thereby exacerbating the frustration of the Hogs' loss, and Ole Miss ended up winning the crown and getting "rewarded" with a No. 12 seed. This was a year where Arkansas, had it bothered to show up for a handful of weekend road tilts, would have likely found itself in the field.

Instead, the Hogs were passed over for the NIT (or they may have rebuffed an invite), and at this point a season that had encouraging moments now looks more like the kind of campaign that John Pelphrey oversaw his last three years: smoldering wreckage with likely casualties ahead. The next few weeks will be filled with rumors of defecting players, and already there are rumblings to that effect concerning a couple of players who grossly underperformed. Even though there are no seniors on this roster, it is likely that this team won't look quite the same next year.

Mike Anderson's two years deep into a seven-year deal, and it's not as if Year Three has the appearance of being make or break just yet, but the reality is that Anderson's first team likely overachieved and his second one fell way short of the bar. Marshawn Powell returned from a bad knee injury to have a mostly effective junior season, and the Hogs added some vitality with four raw newcomers, but the end result was one more win and a lot more aggravation. Because of the sour finish, there's a contemptuous pall over the program that everyone hoped was a bygone circumstance.

But it's very real, and there's a sense of panic in the fan base. What if Anderson wasn't up for this? Worse yet, if he can't correct it, could anyone? Bud Walton Arena, for what it's worth, did get some of its cachet back as the Hogs marched to an 18-1 record at home this year and wiped out the entire SEC slate there for the first time in 15 years. That's easily the most positive development in a season that just went into the gutter, but it also makes the complete lack of a postseason less tolerable. Teams that win 18 games at home ostensibly should be no worse than a mid-level entry into the field of 68 (or 96 or whatever the hell the tourney makeup is now). The conference's fading quality rating over recent years has left the door splayed wide for some hungry team to get fed up, stick its foot in the breach, and just bolt right back into national prominence.

Arkansas isn't just stubbing its toe; it's dropping a dumbbell on its foot. Were this a decade-long stretch of uninterrupted, gross futility, it wouldn't be as troubling, but the Hogs have done a few things right from time to time under all three of Nolan Richardson's successors. All the successes were generally modest, but substantial enough to justify a heightened sense of optimism about the state of affairs. Every time the needle has moved favorably, though, it flips violently backward. We've been left with this pervading sense that the jewel's just not gonna shine again, no matter who tries to polish it.

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