Even in a week where a modest winning streak went by the wayside at Gainesville, Arkansas authored one more earnest surge toward an NCAA Tournament berth that not long ago seemed beyond its grasp.
The Hogs' five-game spurt back into March Madness consideration stalled out in a 78-65 loss at Florida on Wednesday night, but this oddity of a game actually proved how far the team had come in short order. Despite playing poorly at both ends of the court for much of the night, the Hogs were persistent and difficult for a skilled Gators squad — one that is likely headed for a No. 3 or 4 seed in the tourney — to fully shake until the final minutes. And Florida, despite getting outshot at the free throw line, also reaped the benefits of a couple of key home-cooking calls in the second half that kept the visitors at bay. When the Hogs did trim the Florida lead to six points on a couple of occasions, after trailing by as many as 16 in the first half, Florida simply answered in the way that quality teams do.
Arkansas ensured that it would not let the loss become an albatross. The Hogs polished off their regular season at 23-8 and 12-6 in SEC games by pasting Georgia 85-67 in an entertaining Saturday afternoon game where its three seniors had a fitting sendoff in a near-capacity-filled Bud Walton Arena. Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs each shared top-scorer billing with Jaylen Barford as all three put in 15 points to pace the balanced approach that has led to the Hogs being so successful down the stretch. The other senior, Manuale Watkins, capped off what has been a quality final year of his career, chipping in with 12.
Georgia was undermanned but desperate to shed a season-long curse of close losses to Top 50 RPI teams. Down one at the half and playing fairly composed despite the absence of injured post Yante Maten, the Bulldogs looked like they were capable of taking the hosts to the final horn but once their dynamic southpaw point guard, J.J. Frazier, got saddled with foul trouble early in the second half, the rout was essentially ordained because Mike Anderson has expertly used his depth as the season has worn to a close. Even on a day when the dynamic Daryl Macon would muster only three points on 1-of-8 shooting off the bench, Arkansas had far too much firepower to be challenged.
The unselfishness of this team has made even the most jaded Hog fans hearken back to the halcyon years of the program in the early to mid-1990s. Certainly the championship-era Hogs had their bellcows: Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman were generally always guaranteed productivity even when the shots weren't falling. But what made Nolan Richardson's best teams lethal was the ability for a Watkins-like role player to erupt for a quality performance that the opponent could never quite anticipate. If it wasn't Al Dillard slinging home 30-footers with abandon, it was Dwight Stewart or Robert Shepherd or Clint McDaniel chipping in, or an even less heralded guy like Elmer Martin or Warren Linn giving the team quality minutes.
Mike Anderson has coaxed forth the best efforts of Trey Thompson's previously undistinguished career in recent weeks. Dustin Thomas has been a helpful resource at times, and when he's not been at his best, transfer Arlando Cook has made some subtle contributions in his stead. Anton Beard's junior year has been his best by far, with a more confident perimeter stroke and better ball control in the open court. Even when he has an off half like the first 20 minutes against Georgia, he's responded nicely (second half for Beard: six points, three rebounds and a steal) and shown composure that he completely lacked in a truncated and frustrating sophomore year.
The oddity that has to be troubling for Hog fans at this point is the team's lapses have been jarring, to say the least. Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Florida, Minnesota and Vanderbilt all put double-digit losses on the Hogs, and a couple of other defeats came to the likes of mediocre Mississippi State and Missouri. So there's still enough distressing precedent to be heeded as the team embarks on a short weekend trip to Nashville, earning the double-bye with the third seed in the conference tournament that has largely bedeviled the program save for four magical days back in 2000 when a team a hair over .500 blitzed through a quartet of games to secure the Razorbacks' only tourney championship to date out of a quarter-century's worth of bids.
This team, ironically, could present the best threat at sewing up a second title. Kentucky is still formidable, but also susceptible to fits of laxity that are one of the only negative byproducts of collecting the egos of five-star teenagers every year. The Gators knocked the Hogs off twice, but the adage about the obstacles inherent in beating a team thrice in a season accordingly inures to the benefit of the upstarts from Fayetteville.
Whether the team pulls off that somewhat unthinkable feat, though, is now mostly irrelevant unless you would like to see the Hogs' seeding in the field of 68 skyrocket. Even winning the whole show might only get them as far as a No. 6 seed, and right now projections have them anywhere from a seven to a ten. Then there's always the lingering fear that blitzing through a conference tournament isn't always best for a team: You can take that canned heat through a stretch of 72 or 96 hours, but once the streamers start trickling down from the rafters the team goes on ice. That Hog team from 2000? After blowing past a vicious gauntlet in the Georgia Dome, it sat there for five days without game action and then promptly fell behind to Miami by 21 points to start the first-round game before narrowly succumbing in a four-point loss.
Bottom line: We'll take a 1-1 or 2-1 showing in Nashville because either could give the team a slight seeding bump, but at this point the last few weeks alone have made the rollercoaster season worth the ride. As Hannahs ebulliently declared over the microphone after the Georgia win, this team is going dancing, and that's a welcome way to tack games onto the back end of the slate any spring.