This edition of Pearls will have scarcely nestled into newstands when the Arkansas Razorbacks try to pull off a minor miracle in the SEC tournament, starting with a game against Vanderbilt Thursday evening.
I'm going to be perfectly clear about this: if the Hogs can manage to win just that opener, thereby hitting the 20-win mark and getting a de facto road win since the tourney is in the Commodores' home city, it will be a successful eastward excursion for Mike Anderson's beleaguered bunch. The Razorbacks have fallen short of the very modest 20-victory mark the past five seasons and this team, love or hate it, has pulled off quite a few high-quality conquests along the way.
If — and it's a massive "if" — Arkansas manages to play a little deeper into the weekend, it's that latter observation that still has a few optimists harboring visions of a rekindling of that 1999-2000 team that went to Atlanta as a 16-15 shipwreck and ended up hoisting a trophy on Sunday. Those many, befuddling moments this spring where Arkansas looked completely uninterested in extending their season may dissipate. Recent home wins against Kentucky and Texas A&M served to remind us that even in deficient performances, these Hogs can exhibit some fire. The 30-point loss to Missouri that was sandwiched in between, of course, showed just what depths this team can reach, too.
Provided that you need an infusion of excitement about this make-or-break stint in Music City, take heed:
• For the first few weeks of the year, newcomers Michael Qualls and Anthlon Bell looked every bit like the three-star prospects they were slotted as, but Anderson saw something in both and the final few weeks of conference play have given them chances to grow. Bell went through a terrible five-game scoreless stretch where he hardly saw the court, then promptly took advantage of increased minutes and scored in double digits three times in the final six games. He's as erratic a shooter as we've seen on the Hill in a while, but when he's on the stroke is pure and the confidence isn't lacking. As for Qualls, the long-armed guard from Shreveport hasn't been much of a scorer, but he's a devil on the boards and on defense and he'll occasionally surprise from the perimeter. If nothing else, Bell and Qualls are taking away minutes from Rickey Scott and Mardracus Wade, which given the regression of both this year has been fortuitous.
• Marshawn Powell is getting a much-needed break. The junior has been in a terrible funk since he posted 24 points in the Feb. 16 win over Missouri, clanging 42 of his 66 field goal attempts over the last six games. Powell's late swoon was probably easy to predict: the 6-7 junior had major knee surgery last year and, from my perspective, was more dangerous than expected over the first three months or so due to his more developed perimeter stroke. He hasn't had the same vibrancy on the court at the end of February so the five-day layoff heading to Nashville may serve him better than others. Expect to see an invigorated guy on Thursday, also due to the fact that he was a foul-plagued no-show when Vandy throttled the Hogs at Memorial Coliseum last month.
• In a season of parity in college basketball, Anderson is still presumably actively selling his team as better than they've been. A team that can manhandle the likes of Florida is, in theory, as good as it wants to be. Yes, the Hogs promptly got pummeled in the trip to Gainesville, but in a sample size of 31 games there are more than a few glimpses of why many think this squad should have at least three or four more wins and a much more secure postseason fate. The Hogs haven't played with desperation often this season, but when they have, the results have borne out the fact that they can compete with or beat any team.
• Leadership is finally manifest. Powell has had to shoulder the veteran role this season despite having to watch from the bench all last year, but he's handled it ably and waited for others to step up. Kikko Haydar's done everything asked of him and then some, and as the season has progressed, Rashad Madden has quietly figured out ways to impact the game without scoring much. Coty Clarke has also found a niche. If nothing else, Anderson is getting a pretty clear idea of where he can invest some dependency next fall.
Prediction: Hogs take down Vandy easily on Thursday, then surprise Kentucky on Friday before succumbing to Mizzou in the semifinals. It'll be the NIT, as projected, but it will feel like a worthy climb from the abyss.