Given that Arkansas is an indisputably intriguing team — who loses to Toledo at home and then wrecks Ole Miss' charmed season seven weeks later? — the Hogs' cemented bowl destination may come as something of a letdown. The Liberty Bowl does pay well, it provides the Razorbacks a Jan. 2 afternoon kickoff in a familiar and proximately fine location, and it affords the team a better than sporting chance at finishing with eight wins.
Kansas State is 6-6 and fortunate to have a record that good. The Wildcats got just fat enough on the dregs of the Big 12 and out-of-league opposition, then nudged into eligibility on Saturday by getting an admittedly impressive close-shave win over West Virginia. This isn't venerable Coach Bill Snyder's best team, nor is it his worst.
But the Razorbacks can most likely exploit the Wildcats' most glaring weakness after the calendar flips to 2016. Kansas State's soft, inexperienced defense yields a ton of points and yardage, even if it did steady itself somewhat against the likes of the Mountaineers, Kansas and Iowa State in the season's final weeks. The Wildcats conversely don't alarm anyone with an offense that completes less than half its passes, lacks a true bellcow of a runner, and generally floundered against high-end competition.
In fairness, Kansas State's tall but unorthodox quarterback, junior Joe Huebner, is akin to former Wildcat Collin Klein. He runs a little upright and isn't blessed with throwing power, but he messes around and gets things done much of the time by being elusive and tough. Oddly, he was historically inept in the first half of the critical game against West Virginia, got banged up, and then yielded the floor to onetime emergency quarterback Kody Cook, whose arm and legs carried the Cats to a comeback 24-23 victory.
While Arkansas has had a mercurial year in its own right, the Hogs have always been competitive. The same cannot be said for K-State, which had what we will call a haiku-style season, with a 3-6-3 pattern. Three nonconference wins to open the campaign had the Wildcats feeling spry; six ensuing losses, a couple being ugly ones against Oklahoma and Texas, had them wanting the year to simply end. But to their credit, they displayed enough temerity and tenacity to vaporize two bad teams and then fight back against bowl-bound West Virginia to get to Memphis.
This game will merit a more extensive preview in an upcoming Pearls, though. We're a bit overdue in assessing the health of Hog basketball, or rather, we've put it off because nobody really wants to talk about it.
Let's not mince words: This is a potentially lost 2015-16 season for Mike Anderson, which amplifies the gravity of Malik Monk's decision to take his array of skills to the Bluegrass State. When the Hogs faced the grim reality of being without Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls, Alandise Harris and Rashad Madden, they also plugged in only a couple of worthwhile replacements, got a rough result with the recruiting of power forward Ted Kapita, and ended up attracting some head-scratching when it welcomed transfers from Texas Tech and Kennesaw State.
At 3-4, the Hogs have been nothing if not wildly erratic. They bombed a couple of forgettable opponents, but against three ostensibly decent teams (Georgia Tech, Stanford and Wake Forest) the results were decidedly poor. A huge lead disappeared in a crushing collapse against the Cardinal, and a late comeback against the Demon Deacons fell short. The shortage of depth and seasoning leaves Arkansas dependent on players that haven't proved themselves dependable (Anthlon Bell's scoring is up and Moses Kingsley's offensive progress is something to behold), and the newcomers like Dusty Hannahs, Jimmy Whitt and Willy Kouassi just haven't forged any kind of consistency at both ends of the floor.
The result is a team that doesn't lack heart, but is suffering from a dearth of on-court chemistry. It shows largely on the defensive end, where the Hogs are permitting 82 points per outing over their four losses. And opposing gunners are, yet again, finding too much space to stroke open long-range shots.
So what's the short-term outlook? Well, the Hogs welcome Evansville and Tennessee Tech this week to Bud Walton Arena, and, while those teams are a combined 14-3, they clearly present chances for the hosts to revive themselves after rough outings away from the state. Then there's the impending return of point guard Anton Beard, who is a clear impact player and a clear risk given the offseason forgery charge that nearly waylaid his promising career. Provided that a mature, contrite, and determined Beard is who takes the court come Dec. 19 against Mercer in North Little Rock, this is the one thing that augurs well for SEC play for this team. Backcourt personnel for the Hogs is lacking but there's enough of a scoring threat presented by Whitt, Bell, Hannahs and Manuale Watkins that Beard's contributions and steadying hand at the point could be the kind of thing that salvages if not strengthens the season.
Christmastime does afford us all the chance to see the team a little more clearly than we typically do when football games are drawing our attention. If fans will turn out for these home games and give the group a buoying presence, it could be instrumental for their fate once the quality of competition steps up.