The dearth of team cohesiveness had killed Arkansas basketball in recent years. "Hawgball" more or less died because in-house friction led to on-court product that bore the evidence of dissent. Not to pick on any individual players, but you never sensed that in the last years of Nolan Richardson's regime or Stan Heath's or John Pelphrey's respective tenures that the players did the so-called "buy-in" or cared much about team unity.
That worry persisted for this columnist a good few weeks into Mike Anderson's fourth season. Guys like Hunter Mickelson, Devonta Abron and Rotnei Clarke curiously bailed out, and the past three seasons, late February undid all the positives that had accumulated along the way. Many losses were of the unwatchable variety. Even a year ago, as the Razorbacks made a final push to pierce the NCAA tourney bubble, they left two stinkers for the selection committee to stew over, a complete collapse at Alabama and then a league tournament slip-up against lowly South Carolina.
The Hogs' last couple of games this season illustrate how fine that line between irrelevance and dominance can be. Against Missouri, the unquestioned dregs of the conference, Arkansas was shaky early but ultimately ended up with a comfy 15-point home win. By no means was it a perfect effort but it was more than enough. In contrast, when the Hogs went down to Tuscaloosa last year to play a sub-.500 Crimson Tide team, they were inexcusably listless for a bunch with so much at stake.
Against Mississippi State at Starkville on Saturday, the circumstances were more or less akin to those the Hogs faced against the Gamecocks. The gym was almost barren, the offense wasn't in sync, and the foe was playing well above its standards at both ends of the court. That meant that as the game went into its waning stages with the Bulldogs clinging to smallish leads and answering just about every surge that the Hogs managed, it would take pure guts to get out of town on the right side of the line.
Turning to an invigorated defense is the linchpin now, and every individual is making a mark there even when the shots aren't falling. To wit, senior forward Alandise Harris had a horrible performance by most metrics with a scoring goose egg and four pretty bad fouls that sidelined him until the end. But he made two massive plays as the Hogs tried to snatch momentum, the first of which was unselfishly taking a charge when it could've easily been the kind of home-cooking call that left him shackled to the seats for the remainder of the action. How beautifully this group has meshed is wrapped up in a play like that: A senior with no real professional aspirations, mired in a stinker of a game, literally left it all on the floor.
When the Hogs watched a seemingly safe six-point lead dissolve to one, the new glue, Anton Beard, did his job. The freshman's decisive steal and cool free throw touch combined to seal a four-point win that theoretically should never have happened. Mississippi State played inspired ball, got Bobby Portis out of rhythm early, and stood prepared to sweeten up a sour year with a takedown of a ranked team. And yet for all the Bulldogs' excelling they went eight minutes without a field goal and clanked some free throws, emblems not just of their own failures, but of the Hogs' sudden intimidation factor. Even as Mississippi State worked its smallish crowd into a frenzy with some big second-half stretches, Arkansas never faltered and maintained perceptible poise.
Stretching their records to 22-5 overall and 11-3 in the SEC, the Hogs embark upon the program's biggest game in a good while Saturday. Regardless of the results of Tuesday's homecoming against Texas A&M, the date at Rupp Arena with spotless Kentucky is a barometer game with long-term implications. Win it, or even succumb at the very end, and Arkansas stands ready to rend the blue blanket that John Calipari has draped across the region.
The comforting thing is that Arkansas, with five road wins in seven conference contests, and a certain return to the field of 68 secured, is genuinely on the map again. Even being blasted by unbeaten and rarely challenged Kentucky might do nothing to spoil what has been transpiring the past few weeks. Clearly the Wildcats are operating at an exalted plane this season, but they've also had to overcome some sloppy play at times. Calipari has blathered ad nauseam after those games about how his team still has so much learning and proving to do to be championship caliber, yadda, yadda, so why not take him at his word?