Oh, those wily, expectation-killing Razorbacks! Lest you think for a moment that signs of The Great Pall Over Basketball lifting are real and tangible, we give you the new Hogs of old. Newest verse, same maudlin dirge.
Hate to start off so bleak, but after Mike Anderson's third iteration of the Fastest Forty Minutes blazed to a commendable, if still cautionary, 11-2 start, you had to be lulled into believing, and maybe even entertaining obscenely grandiose thoughts of miracle Final Four runs. You just felt like at long last, this was a well-machined bunch, one that could not only reliably obliterate all the non-conference weaklings but then seamlessly transition to SEC play with swagger. It would not have been folly to think that the 2013-14 team, deep and athletic and buoyed by rapid improvement from key returnees, was closer to legit than anything we've seen post-Richardson.
Not jumping off the cliff just yet, but after the Hogs hacked away two winnable games in a four-day coughing fit well suited for cold and flu season, you start tiptoeing nearer the edge than you wanted to in January, and certainly you didn't anticipate a dead-legged showing again in College Station followed by the bitter end of a 23-game home winning streak against Top 10 Florida. Texas A&M just isn't very good — a 20-point home loss to North Texas preceded the Aggies' 69-53 beating of the Hogs — and Florida trailed most of the second half at Bud Walton Arena before the Hogs started missing dunks and surrendering back-breaking threes in a fashion that was so very 2012-13 (or really, 2002-13, if we're being fair).
The galling part of it is that people who had gotten dependable suddenly became troublingly inefficient. Michael Qualls had two largely horrible efforts after weeks of solid play. Bobby Portis was simply terrible at A&M while a much less touted frosh named Davonte Fitzgerald snatched the spotlight in a fine 17-point showing for the lowly Ags. Then Alandise Harris lost his footing against the Gators, making a number of critical and largely unforced gaffes. It's ironic that Rashad Madden, whose confidence used to be easily shaken, had a couple of steady if not electric efforts in the losses. I would've pegged him as most susceptible to backsliding, but the kid has earned the right to take the reins of this shaky bunch and try to coax resurgence from it.
If you are scoring at home, the Hogs' 53-point "effort" against A&M was a mere two-point "improvement" from the 69-51 a year before in the same cavern. They played a hideous game against a team that, amazingly, they might have regarded lightly. How does a team with no NCAA berths in six years do that?
The smug answer to the rhetorical question may sadly be "coaching." And it may not fall entirely or even principally on Anderson. His staff is culpable. Practices, we can surmise, aren't productive when a team is so grossly erratic in game situations. It's nice that Arkansas was able to respond to the first loss by giving a fair amount of commitment against a far better team, but it still ended on the wrong side of the hyphen because the Hogs failed to do numerous and seemingly routine things that would've secured a key win.
Instead, it's an 0-2 start for a team that cannot be historically counted upon to brush back adverse results, especially when traveling abroad. The schedule toughens from here and the framework of another struggle is in place. How do they resist the urge to quit?
And incidentally, how do we as fans resist the urge to quit on them?
Pearls gets gloom-and-doom about the Hogs on a Tuesday afternoon. Mere hours later, Mike Qualls delivers the flush heard 'round the world, sending the healthiest and most raucous Bud Walton Arena crowd in years into a frenzy. The Hogs win their third straight home tilt against vaunted Kentucky, 87-85, in an overtime classic that could not have ended in a prettier, more encouraging manner.
So, yeah, everything that winds up in print this week looks awfully snarky and flat-out wrong. But let's not forget that these Hogs have simply been so Jekyll-and-Hyde dependent upon location. A big one against Georgia looms on Saturday and if you think that the Hogs don't have much to worry about against an 8-7 team that just got pasted by Florida, think again. No road trip is to be taken for granted, and last year, after the Hogs broke down Florida at home in a massive upset they promptly laid a whopping egg the next Saturday at Vanderbilt.
Mike Qualls' dunk can be THE play that swings the momentum of the program. Or it can just be an ESPY winner and nothing more.