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In the middle with Mike

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Yes, yes, tacking a "Blame Mike Anderson" headline on last week's Pearls was incendiary but don't read too much into it. There wasn't any shameless advocacy for firing the guy. I don't want that, but calling his methods into question isn't out of bounds.

This is what blogosphere/message board fervor is: The most starkly black or white factionalism you can envision. You cannot be the gray area guy because, well, it's unbecoming. If our political gulf is ever widening, so goes the one separating fan and hater. You're either with Mike Anderson or against him, and by God, take your pick and stick by it.

I'm firmly in the verboten gray area with regard to Anderson. The uptick in the program's success from the garbage monster that John Pelphrey created is there, but it's scant and strange. When the Hogs get into the Top 25 for the first time in years, they languish and drop two, then do a basic repeat of that stunt when conference play begins.

Arkansas basketball, though, in the end analysis, is a better thing now than it was four years prior. That was the baseline litmus test for Anderson to pass, and he's done so. Again, last week's column was not the hellfire and brimstone pitch for his dismissal, because circumstances do not warrant it. He's won more than he's lost, built some excitement back into the program, and made this year's team a viable Sweet 16 type of team by enhancing the depth, purging the program of the space-wasters that Pelphrey hoarded, and coaxing advances from players who once looked like utter projects. Michael Qualls, to put it lightly, has matured and developed in a way that I never thought possible, so count that among Mike's most authoritative wins.

Qualls threw in a career-best 30 in the overtime home win against Alabama that snapped the Hogs' two-game skid. He was everywhere and anywhere he needed to be, sinking free throws, grabbing rebounds, terrorizing the Tide's appreciable backcourt talent on defense when called upon, and slashing to the hoop. Now he's developed a highly competent long-range shot and a very good court sense: you never seem to see the junior swingman playing out of control, which is a rarity for the kind of athleticism he exhibits.

Bobby Portis had a frustrating night against the Tide, but was vindicated with his tip-in winner at the buzzer. The momentum from that victory carried Arkansas to a narrow one-point win on the road at Missouri on Saturday, with less than 48 hours between games, and it proved that Arkansas can win sluggish ones. Mizzou is a laughable shell of what it has been, and Kim Anderson's rebuilding job there is about as daunting as the one Mike faced here, but the Tigers have been really competitive in spite of their shortcomings and tried to make opponents play left-handed as much as possible. It was evident in the Arkansas offensive attack that day, too: But for Alandise Harris coming through with some big shots, Qualls and Portis' off games would have normally spelled far more trouble. Instead, Ky Madden gathered himself in the late stages for some clutch points, and most importantly, luck smiled on the Razorbacks when the Tigers' Wes Clark bricked two free throws with three seconds left that would've sent Arkansas to 3-3 purgatory in the league standings.

So here are the Hogs, mercurial as ever, but very much in the "good enough" category with a coach who, for better or worse, has helmed winning programs before. It's by no means the ideal scenario but it's also the earliest juncture of the season for the Hogs to be at the 15-win mark since the turn of the century. Anderson is doing what he's done at Missouri and at UAB, which is basically be something less than sexy and something more than mediocre. It's probably been about as bad as it will get under his watch, but it also may not get much better, either, especially since Portis and Qualls are likely leaving after this season if their current trajectories continue. People will celebrate Madden's and Harris' graduations, but it would be a mistake, because next year will essentially be a team commandeered by some really green players, and it's arguable whether any of them can replace the kind of production that the guys on the floor currently are bringing.

Expect this kind of thing to persist for a decade or so. Anderson's still not that old, and he's gotten the needle moved just enough to keep outright anarchy from setting in. And maybe there are surprises in store: This is the year for the Hogs to be a disruptive postseason force because Kentucky clearly isn't as invincible as once thought, Florida is in a downturn and LSU and Alabama still appear just shy of greatness under Johnny Jones and Anthony Grant, respectively. It's a league that, frankly, the Hogs could win on talent alone.

The tough part, though, is that it's also one they could lose if Anderson's fragile grasp on it weakens much further. Another week of battles will be telling as to how this team expects to respond.

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