Admit it: You still get a charge out of watching an Arkansas Razorback team putting away anything in burnt orange, don't you?
Texas can be titans of the gridiron or also-rans on the hardwood and it doesn't matter. There could be standing room only at the yard bearing Darrell Royal's name or a paltry gathering at the Toyota Center and it doesn't matter. On Saturday, the latter two, less-than-sexy circumstances were in place, and Arkansas played a sloppy, weirdly uneven game, and still won.
And how's this for a rich and unicorn-rare wrinkle: The Hogs won this game with rebounding competency (!) and free-throw prowess (!!) and next to nothing else. The Hogs were terrible from the perimeter, and Moses Kingsley had a positively horrid first half. They couldn't even manage to turn the Longhorns over like they had anticipated doing, what with Texas having very little backcourt experience to speak of and almost no discernible depth. But in the end, what mattered was that Arkansas — yes, that program that has logged all of four NCAA tourney victories over the past 20 seasons — just simply wanted it more and looked like a contending brand of team doing it.
You can, it seems, be 9-1 in late December and fly totally under the national radar. Arkansas missed a big chance by bombing its only true road game, losing by 14 to a decent but utterly flawed Minnesota team, so there's probably no question that being 10-0 would put the team into the rankings. The wins don't jump off the page on first glance, but the Hogs have knocked off some rather high-quality mid-major teams and done this without really looking all that cohesive, and with Kingsley generally faltering in his bid to make good on preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year acclaim. He's not all that assertive offensively in these early stages, and that tentativeness nearly cost Arkansas dearly on Saturday in Houston. His scoreless first half, contrasted with lanky freshman counterpart Jarrett Allen's productive and active opening frame, was essentially the sole cause for the Hogs falling behind and dragging a five-point ankle weight of a deficit into the locker room.
Kingsley had two or three key offensive series after halftime to possibly get his swagger back, but mostly he re-established control of the game at the other basket. The Longhorns slash a lot under Shaka Smart, very much akin to what the second-year coach's best Virginia Commonwealth teams did, and yet Kingsley stayed anchored in the paint and thwarted numerous opportunities. The Hogs accordingly built nine-point leads twice in the second half, but both times watched — and I do mean watched, because the complacency was evident — those leads shrink quickly and dangerously.
The oddball occurrence was that the Razorbacks fended off anything resembling collapse by canning free throws at a record clip. The 29-of-31 showing was even more remarkable when you considered that the Hogs' other shots were clanging away at a fevered rate, and that Dusty Hannahs was responsible for one of those misses (Trey Thompson had the other). Daryl Macon's season-best 23 points was utterly modest from a floor perspective (4 of 12 field goals), but the transfer coolly nailed all 14 of his foul shots. Jaylen Barford, Arlando Cook and Kingsley added an aggregate 10 of 10.
And it seemed like all of those 29 points were consequential, particularly because the Horns were only 19 of 32 on their tries. In a game where Texas flipped the proverbial script by attacking at both ends, Smart's team paid the ultimate price for its aggression at both ends. Arkansas cashed in time after time on those precious one-pointers, and even with the talented Tevin Mack and freshman Andrew Jones combining for 37 points by scoring in all manner of ways, the Longhorns' four free-throw misses in the last five minutes spelled the eventual outcome.
Mike Anderson walked off the court visibility relieved, and with a sense of achievement. This has been a program with such well-documented struggles outside of the home arena that it no longer merits much analysis. And here was a game against a onetime rival, in its de facto backyard, where very little went right offensively. That sounds so much like the staging of a typical Razorback basketball loss these past several campaigns that it seems cruel to even fashion it as a hypothetical.
But this team has an appreciable degree of resiliency because, well, it doesn't know any better. Hannahs and Kingsley are the senior leaders here, but the former is only in his second season as a Hog after transferring in from Texas Tech and the latter was an utter project for two years before he blossomed only 12 months and change ago. Nobody on the squad has truly enjoyed frontline success even though Anton Beard had impactful moments on the 27-win team of 2014-15.
That dearth of entitlement makes this team compelling. There's no doubt that the players and coaches expected a lot of themselves, but the outsider might have taken a long look at this team and undersold the parts without considering the sum. It's a long season, but the first one-third posits well for the later grind.