A mercurial team might as well have a mercurial day of the week.
Saturdays have been equal parts heaven and hell for Arkansas basketball of late, and that's been aptly shown in February alone. The Hogs started this critical month in horrid fashion: They went to Baton Rouge to play a resurgent LSU team, limping after a home loss to Missouri, and did so without the services of the suspended Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris. Predictably, they were down by 20 points in a near-instant, and even a feisty second-half effort would only draw them within six points before they fell, 88-74.
That Feb. 1 loss was, it seemed, just the latest low point in a season replete with them. Since then, though, Arkansas has experienced modest confidence gains, and ironically it might be that showing in Louisiana that sets them on a proper path to some kind of postseason bid for a change (let's not even eyeball the coveted reentry into the NCAA field just yet). On a day when they were shorthanded and utterly steamrolled for the first 15 minutes or so, the Hogs actually did something they haven't commonly done on the road, which is demonstrate composure and competitive fire.
Looking backward now might seem cavalier, but after halftime and with the season crumbling at a disturbingly quick pace, Arkansas thwarted the Tigers' endeavor to make the game a laugher. An 18-4 run in the closing minutes wasn't enough to alter the outcome, but it did apparent wonders for Mike Anderson's team in the following ways:
• The Hogs shot horribly that day, knocking down only 21 of 64 attempts from the floor while LSU canned 35 shots in the same number of tries. Coupled with the Tigers' decisive plus-12 rebounding advantage, it was a statistical marvel that Arkansas even stayed in the game at all. So how the hell did they? Simply put, they got aggressive, but smartly so — an 18-of-19 free throw effort over the last 16 minutes was atypically sound, but the confidence in knocking down those freebies bled over to the following games, too. In the four ensuing games — three wins and an agonizing one-point defeat to Missouri at Columbia — the Hogs hoisted 106 total free throws, hitting an impressive 79, and showed a renewed vigor in getting into the paint. The primary aggressor has been Rashad Madden, whose light-years improvement in 2013-14 may be the single most inspiring story of this frustrating season.
• In that first tilt against LSU, the Tigers' dynamic freshman post Jordan Mickey was an unrepentant terror. He blocked six shots in addition to having an artful double-double of 22 points and 11 boards, but maybe most damning of all was the fact that the rangy Dallas product only committed a single foul in 35 minutes. For all of the Hogs' assertiveness in getting to the stripe at Baton Rouge, they weren't effective at creating contact where it mattered.
So they resolved that issue, rather forcefully, in the rematch at Bud Walton this past weekend. Mickey was checked offensively — his eight-point output was only his third game in single digits all year — but mostly he was a non-factor at the defensive end thanks to foul trouble. And although his brawny companion, Johnny O'Bryant, had another impressive showing against the Hogs (20 points, 16 boards), the Hogs didn't suffer greatly for it with Mickey and other frontcourt staples getting shackled.
• Perhaps the most significant byproduct of the road loss to LSU was an intangible one. Arkansas didn't quit in a road tilt when it easily could have and, as a result, the team took the floor the next week at Vandy with a sense of cohesiveness it hasn't had away from home for ... well, almost two decades. Losing at Missouri was unfortunate, but yet again the Hogs demonstrated uncommon fortitude in that one, negating a double-digit margin and battling back repeatedly to take a couple of slim leads late.
There is, for the first time in a good while, a sense that Arkansas truly loathes its well-earned reputation as a road patsy. This team, more than Anderson's first two and by miles more so than any of John Pelphrey's, seems unwilling to fold. On one hand it's reassuring to see a team show in-season maturation; on the other, it's frustrating that it seems to be happening too late to make a substantive difference.