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No room for error



I don't do this very often within the parameters of "Pearls," but this will be a segmented column addressing two issues on the Hill.

The first is the basketball team's tepid but real resurgence over the past few days. Arkansas has somehow shrugged off two terrible losses (by 26 at Kentucky after a good first half, and then an outright tanking at home against Mississippi State) to win three in a row and surge to 15-4, 4-3 in SEC play. The Hogs, of course, have had no choice but to look good if they want to eke into a crowded NCAA Tournament field, one which presumably will only take three or four conference teams.

Mike Anderson's crew had a flat-out awful 30 minutes at College Station and that didn't bode well for the upswing. Texas A&M is utterly mediocre this year, particularly at the offensive end, but the Aggies carried a 12-point lead in the second half and then fizzled. It was a weird game to say the least: Manuale Watkins, a senior guard who's never shown range beyond 12 to 15 feet, decided to start stroking threes and he hit a trio of them to get the moribund offense going. Moses Kingsley tossed in a long-range jumper as well, and as the final minutes began to wear away, Arkansas nudged ahead.

They still played like a team without much composure, though. There were numerous gaffes in the waning seconds alone, with Jaylen Barford memorably and inexplicably dribbling the ball out of bounds to give the Aggies a shot at snatching victory out of defeat's rusty, crooked jaws. It didn't happen, though, and it's partially due to the Hogs being unusually stingy on the perimeter and also a function of the opponent being extraordinarily inept at scoring.

Thus, the Hogs escaped with a second road win in three tries, and that set the table for a much steadier performance in primetime on Saturday night. LSU, like A&M, is at its weakest state in a good stretch, which is precisely why the national pundits give this conference so little credit — the best teams are good, but flawed, and the worst teams are uniformly and completely terrible. There's a very real chance that more than half of the league will end up with losing conference records and many of those will have a sub-.500 overall mark at the end of the year.

Johnny Jones' Tigers were aggressive and pesky at Bud Walton but it was hardly enough to stave off the best offensive showing that Moses Kingsley has given all year, a 24-point display that routinely involved the senior forward stepping back and confidently stroking 18- to 20-footers and then backing into the paint with more force than he's demonstrated in a season that has been underwhelming to date. It could well be the catalyst for better games ahead, and it also buoyed the offense when the defense reverted back to some puzzling lapses. Arkansas posted a 99-86 win and could've cracked the 100-point barrier easily but dribbled out the clock with the lead reaching the degree of security that it did. 

Where do they go from here? Vanderbilt looked like a potential lock for a fourth straight win but then dispatched Florida at Gainesville in an early game Saturday, so even with the upcoming schedule still being highly favorable to the Hogs, the pressure is immense. Lose to a somewhat lowly Commodore team and there's substantial, arguably irreparable damage done to the NCAA tournament resume, which is still very much in a dubious condition anyway. Then the Hogs draw Oklahoma State in the Big 12-SEC challenge, and the Cowboys are mired in a horrible season so far. Obviously, the net effect of this week is little to be gained while much could be lost: coast back from Stillwater with a 17-4 mark, and the team looks strong and confident, even having buried utterly beatable opposition. But again, a split or a washout completely takes the Hogs off the bubble for good, barring an SEC tourney miracle run.

On the football field, Paul Rhoads predictably ascended to permanent defensive coordinator status, and that's the best and only option for Bret Bielema to deal with his beleaguered unit at this point. Robb Smith looked like a genius when the personnel was favorable, and then the bloom was off the rose once Darius Philon, Trey Flowers, and Martrell Spaight all went pro after the 2014 season. He took the Minnesota gig to avoid the indignity of a firing here.

Rhoads was the right choice to take over. He's cut his teeth as a coordinator in this vicious conference, did an admirable job as Iowa State's head coach for a good stretch, and took on the defensive back challenge last fall with aplomb. Arkansas doesn't have all-world corners and safeties, which is not a stunning revelation, but the way Santos Ramirez, Ryan Pulley and Josh Liddell developed on the back end of the defense was noteworthy, particularly because a highly overrated defensive line rarely generated any kind of pressure against elusive quarterbacks.

There's really no reason the defense should not be better under Rhoads' guidance. He's a fiery and knowledgeable man with a wealth of experience, and his hiring as a position coach was highly celebrated last year when it happened. There is no reason his elevation to coordinator should not be viewed with the same sense of optimism, and it will be interesting to see how he addresses depth deficiencies during spring drills. For my money, expect some position changes and some shuffling to occur — one of Smith's worst attributes was that he seemed all too committed to deploying unproductive players and letting young guys remain on the pine. I don't think Rhoads will exhibit that brand of conservatism.

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