Arkansas basketball is the great deceiver. The minute you start sensing that a special team is coalescing, a quick road swing will jar you back toward Earth. The Hogs were a team on the rise as 2017 came to a close, playing a sluggish 37 minutes in a home opener against Tennessee and then scraping together a fine rally in the waning minutes of regulation and overtime to win by two. That kind of excitement permeated the fan base as the calendar turned over, the team nudged into the Top 25, and the Hogs were executing their coach's vision to the tune of an 11-2 start.
It took all of seven days for the temperament to alter, and let's face it, Arkansas cannot thrive without Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon both contributing. It's really that transparent at this point. The senior guard tandem exploded against the Vols, amassing 61 points and each notching career-high totals. Against Mississippi State three days later, the Bulldogs were energized to go up against a ranked foe to open their conference slate. And the Hump is always a weirdly difficult place to play. Barford, so dependable for weeks, finally had his dud game, bricking all six of his three-point tries and finishing with a pedestrian 11 points. The Hogs scrapped masterfully and had a 73-69 lead late, but State roared back and stole the win.
Against Auburn on Saturday night, Macon's motor stalled and the Hogs dug a prompt hole against Bruce Pearl's band of potentially impermissible bandits. Macon did help trigger a late flourish that carved a 21-point deficit to six, but again the Hogs lacked late-game composure, the rally was snuffed, and Arkansas had suddenly lost as much in four days as it had in the eight preceding weeks.
No more ranking. No more optimism. Not much surprise, either—this is a team that lost its defensive identity primarily, and failed to have enough perimeter firepower to offset that deficiency. CJ Jones, Trey Thompson, Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook are all seen, in fairness, as complementary role players. But they've struggled to embrace any roles at all. And it's hampering a team that has Sweet 16-level skill on the whole.
There's a prescription for fixing the road woes. Arkansas got embarrassingly outdone at the free throw line in Starkville — 40 shots by the hosts to a meager dozen for the Hogs — but that's not exclusively the domain of the usually incapable officials. No, the Razorbacks have abandoned interior penetration save for Barford, and he's simply not doing enough of it. Knowing that the referees will be incorrigible on the road, why waste time vesting them with trust to make timely and proper calls? Get thee to the rack and forsake the 22-footer, brethren.
That even goes for Macon, too, who is a hell of a three-point shooter but commonly relies on his stroke when he could be getting easier points from the 15-foot stripe. He's a deft driver even if he lacks Barford's raw strength, and he's a superior free throw shooter too.
This also benefits the Hogs' gifted but hopelessly foul-addled freshman post. Daniel Gafford has regularly found himself with three or four fouls too early in the second half, and it materially impacts the Razorbacks' approach. Gafford needs to harness his ball-swatting instincts on occasion, sure, but a better approach is for the El Dorado product to continue to camp out down low and get easy buckets on the offensive side so he gains confidence on the opposite end. The times where Gafford has pursued a huge block are roughly correlated to how things are going with the ball in his hands. If he's a frustrated or limited offensive asset, then he tends to be understandably overzealous rim protector, trying to make an impact defensively when he's not getting it done in the scoring column.
Certainly this is all armchair quarterbacking. But seven years into Mike Anderson's tenure, it is evident that he's not terribly interested in chewing a naughty ref's ear when his mentor would have probably uttered things suitable for a terroristic threatening police report. (I kid, Nolan, I kid!) The officiating, you see, is not going to improve and it may well regress. So it's time for Anderson to accept this as a variable that does exist, and is one he cannot genuinely control. The team has to play with measured but increased aggression and smarts, and that goes for home games as well.
Speaking of that, Arkansas gets a Fayetteville two-step with LSU (Wednesday) and Missouri (Saturday) this week. Both are nestled comfortably in that indiscernible middle of the standings with the Hogs at the moment, and ironically both felt the same jubilation and heartache in their last games. LSU heaved home a ridiculous desperation three to beat sagging Texas A&M at College Station. The same day, Mizzou turned it over at home in the final seconds and Florida's Chris Chiozza softly made a layup with 0.1 seconds on the clock for a tie-breaker. So both schools know the perils and virtues of SEC play just as well as Arkansas, and accordingly won't march into Bud Walton Arena blissfully impervious to the realities of what appears to be College basketball's functional equivalent of the Wild Wild West in 2017-18.