- Brian Chilson
- Arkansas Razorback Basketball Coach Mike Anderson
The sting of the "Grifters in Greenville" incident having finally dissipated somewhat, I am prepared to assess Razorback basketball anew.
The fact that North Carolina is now in the Final Four and had to withstand another challenge from Kentucky to arrive there, after snatching a win away from Arkansas on March 19, validates the Tar Heels' mettle and pedigree. The two Sunday evening affairs were eerily similar: UNC seemed to clamp down on Kentucky just fine early, but an active and persistent Wildcat backcourt helped push John Calipari's second-seeded group into a 64-59 lead late (you'll recall the Hogs also had the Heels against the ropes, 65-60, with 3 minutes left). And just like the prior weekend, UNC followed that with a 12-0 burst to basically secure the game, though Kentucky ended this with a nice flurry to draw even on a Malik Monk three, only to have Luke Maye sink a 19-footer to win it with three-tenths of a second left.
Arkansas beat South Carolina on the road back in February and ended the season in strong fashion while the Gamecocks limped to two wins in seven games. There was outcry here when the Cocks got a seven seed and the Hogs, boasting that head-to-head win and a better overall record, got shipped off to Greenville, S.C., as the eight.
Now the other, ostensibly lesser Carolina sits across the bracket from UNC. And in that Final Four is also the onetime, 24-hour Hog coach Dana Altman, himself a bit of an outsider with his Oregon Ducks playing arguably the best and cleanest basketball of the first two weeks of the tourney.
Mike Anderson owns two 1-1 trips to the dance in six seasons in Fayetteville, and that in itself is a downer of sorts. But there is a modicum of stability and predictability in the model now, and Anderson's 128 wins compare favorably to the 141 that Nolan Richardson racked up in his first six years at the helm of the Hogs. He's reversed a longstanding curse of road struggles in conference play and gotten some prized transfers and in-state talent in the fold, even if the likes of Malik Monk, KeVaughn Allen, Payton Willis and Austin Reaves have slipped outside the borders.
The health of the program is, warts and all, still so much better than it has been in the post-championship era. Anderson lacks his mentor's penchant for fiery, boot-stomping sideline antics and braggadocio for coaching up marginal recruits. Richardson once boasted to me on a drive to the local airport, back in 1998 or so, "I beat out Louisiana TECH for Scotty Thurman!" He was correct, and smug about it, too. Nolan relished the idea of building a Maserati out of Mazda parts.
Anderson realizes he cannot be quite that cavalier in an era of me-first, program-later players. He's doing the right things by getting people like Moses Kingsley and Daniel Gafford, big guys who aren't yet polished enough to be gone in a few months. The hope with the latter El Dorado product is that he'll be an immediate impact player in the wake of the former Nigerian project. You can always hope you'll get to lay claim to someone like Monk due to geography alone, but the better long-term plan is to get something resembling a nucleus in gestation so that it's not a total rebuild every year.
Where the Hogs may suffer, at least momentarily, is in finding that same balance that carried them to 26 wins this season. Dusty Hannahs and Kingsley both ceded some opportunities from a year ago and it paid off because junior college transfers Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford were, after all, proven scorers. The unselfishness of the elders is a big reason why the team pulled out of a couple of lulls in January and February to not only make the tourney after it seemed like such a fate was imperiled, but to excel to the point that the Sweet 16 drought was about 2 solid minutes of basketball from becoming a historical footnote.
Leadership from the backcourt will again be huge and it will be Barford, Macon and Anton Beard providing it. That's a fairly talented senior trio and Beard's rebound from a suspension- and inconsistency-plagued sophomore campaign puts him on track to finish out a strange career with some degree of equilibrium. Those seniors will be augmented by the rangy freshman Khalil Garland and, hopefully, a substantially improved C.J. Jones, who seemed primed for a big freshman year before the junior college guys asserted themselves.
Up front, Kingsley's shot-blocking acumen can't be replaced, but there's still a seasoned duo in Dustin Thomas and Trey Thompson to lean upon. Neither is a primary offensive option, but that may make life a little easier on Gafford and returnees like Adrio Bailey and Arlando Cook. If those five guys can manage to scrape together 30-35 points per game and control the glass, then it may be sufficient with the guards' collective ability to put up points and suffocate the adversaries at the other end of the court. The wild card may be incoming freshman Darious Hall, who completed his career at Little Rock Mills with a state championship trophy and tourney MVP honors, boosting his recruiting ranking and even convincing some onlookers that he has the ability to be the true jewel of an excellent class if he continues to progress. He's got a little bit of Michael Qualls in his game, and a much sturdier frame to boot.
The upshot is that Arkansas's bitter loss to end this season may provide a sweet note to start the next. The incoming talent is as deep and game-ready as any class we've seen since Richardson stacked the 1995-96 squad with about 10 players who ended up all over map as far as individual success was concerned. The returning players have the upward development of the program to build upon, and that's not been a virtue to speak of for a while. This is a team that could earn a preseason Top 25 ranking come summertime, which seems so modest but means a lot when the historical context is factored in.