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Mike Anderson and the long game



Whenever this aggravating 2012-13 basketball campaign finally goes into the annals, regardless of the manner in which it concludes, a handful of head-scratching performances will be at the locus of the reflective discussion: Shoulda beaten South Carolina, Vandy, Alabama, etc. In a season of 30 games, give or take a few, the Hogs are most likely NIT-bound instead of NCAA-bound because of about three or four losses that still seem absurd weeks after the fact.

Let's not belabor the home-road dichotomy any further. College basketball has been tarnished to a large extent by the NBA's poaching, and as a result the team that travels is often the team that unravels. It's not a uniquely Razorback trait: inexperienced players are susceptible to wilting when the crowds are unkind, just as much as they are jacked up by a supportive bunch. We've seen it all year, and as documented here previously, for the better part of the past two decades generally.

Arkansas gave another feeble first-half showing against LSU in the mid-week game, falling behind by more than 20 points and then flopping in the closing minutes after admirably nudging its way back to a draw. That's when BJ Young, characterizing the aforementioned imbalance, tried to replicate his heroics in the waning moments of home wins against Missouri and Georgia the week before. Instead he committed a critical turnover and chucked a hideous, off-line three, and the Hogs caved in by a final margin of five.

The Hogs followed that clunker with a strange but spirited win over Kentucky, and even if they shot terribly all game, they delivered a mature, composed performance in almost every other way. They rebounded, hustled after loose balls, tormented the hell out of Kentucky's able but untested backcourt and did everything in their collective capacity to drive virtual icepicks into John Calipari's eye sockets. It was, in a word, fun.

But this season has, on balance, not been enjoyable. The Hogs' on-court bipolar performance is maddening in the instant, but it's also hard to comprehend how Mike Anderson could possibly correct it. Even if you assume that the Hogs' roster returns unscathed for the 2013-14 season, how much optimism does that generate? Young is a dynamic player who also received a callous virtual sendoff from message board posters who were livid at his decision-making. I'm guilty of it, too, I guess — my Facebook observation the night of the LSU game was that Young simply doesn't elicit much confidence from me from game to game, even if he's admittedly had some spectacular snippets in his sophomore year. There's not much cause for confidence about any of the other ballyhooed members of Young's class elevating their play significantly for next season, either.

Anderson is an immensely patient man who has weathered this kind of storm before in every stop he's made. Nolan Richardson's first two years in Fayetteville were unremarkable at best, and even if the dynamics of the college game have transformed dramatically since that time, it's still a relevant point of reflection. Some of my earliest memories watching Hog basketball games were of the team lighting it up at Barnhill Arena and then getting inexplicably worked over at TCU or Baylor the next week. We weren't happy with it then, and when you think about that controversial game against ASU in the NIT in 1987, you are reminded that a program that had an extended stretch of dominance had the same very humbling prologue as the one we see now.

That, for this columnist's money, is the intangible aspect of Anderson's coaching career that made him so coveted when John Pelphrey was excused two years ago. It wasn't just that he was an essential cog in an early 1990s winning machine, but also the fact that he was on the bench for a lot of just plain bad days (mostly in the State of Texas, natch) in the 1980s. The value of the "system" or the coach's persona is often an inflated construct of PR departments. What may be more instructive, when all else is boiled down, is whether that coach's personal trials are both relative and relevant to the program he's about to command. 

If this seems like a paean to Anderson, it probably is. From the day of his hiring I felt he was not brought home to win 20 in year two, but to win 30 in year four or five. That objective is still within reach and he still looks like a guy who, when contrasted with his predecessor especially, will diagnose wheat and chaff pretty well. Even if this latest chapter ends in the second-tier tournament, we cannot neglect the memory that a program was reconstructed masterfully in that same invitational a quarter-century ago.

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