It pains me to scrawl this batch of Pearls, because like virtually everyone else who watched Mike Anderson "come home" in March 2011 amid fanfare and with a sense that a painful epoch of Razorback basketball was set to close for good, I wanted the beloved understudy to get his overdue, storybook reintroduction and then take flight.
Arkansas basketball is in a very weird place today, though, and if I can summon a football analogy that work reasonably well here, it's probably comparable to the state of affairs of Nebraska football. Both really hit their stride as national powerhouses in the early to mid-1990s, behind venerable coaches who were stubborn and steadfast in their respective philosophies. Nolan Richardson was more charismatic and fiery than Tom Osborne outwardly, and the former employed a sexier brand of offensive execution than did the latter, but both of them had an old-school, defense-first ideology, and they'd take an occasional chance on a player with character concerns if they thought he could help the team and be helped in the process.
Osborne didn't burn bridges when he went out on top; Richardson memorably backslid after back-to-back national title games and employed a scorched-earth tactic when his dismissal was announced. In spite of all that, the struggles both programs have faced to restore a measure of relevance are noteworthy. Since Osborne retired from coaching, having won or shared three national titles, his successors over a 21-season period have sniffed only modest success here and there but never approached the same pinnacles that Osborne did. And while Nebraska football hasn't cratered by any means, its zealous fanbase suffered through a malaise that they're now hoping Scott Frost — the last Husker quarterback to win a national title — will eradicate.
That's how most everyone around here felt about Anderson seven years ago, but now he is starting to look as unremarkable as the other coaches who were hired (and, peering critically at you, Coach Altman, those who ended up staying longer than 24 hours) to succeed a regional and national icon. This is Year Seven, and Arkansas has all of two, narrow NCAA tourney wins spaced 24 months apart, and two agonizing losses to North Carolina that followed those victories. In other words, the program remains without a Sweet Sixteen berth in 22 years, barring a turnaround this spring, and when you consider the Hogs reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the 22 years preceding that ... well, it's pretty jarring.
That's all there is to show for it, and the 2017-18 team, expected to build upon the resurgent effort a year ago, is simply floundering in ways that cannot possibly be ignored or excused by Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas's newly minted athletic director. Since bewilderingly giving and publicly announcing the two-year extension for Anderson a couple of weeks ago, the program has put forth three stinkers: the narrowest of home wins against Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, followed by two ugly road defeats to Texas A&M and LSU. The Aggies were simply too hot to be contained on a Tuesday evening in College Station, putting the game away with a flurry of long jumpers to start the second half and ending up with a 14-point win. Arkansas looked uninterested in avenging its worst loss of the season, a 75-54 no-show against the Tigers at Bud Walton, when it took on LSU four days later in Baton Rouge. These Tigers, athletic as always but also short on personnel as per usual, just casually took the open three-point looks they were granted, and swished half of their 30 attempts while also blistering the Hogs at the free throw line to secure an easy win.
The atrocity that is Arkansas's defense continues to disappoint. A&M hit a lot of relatively contested looks but LSU, typically a poor shooting team, exposed the Hogs' guards as being slow, inattentive or both in draining unchallenged shot after shot. These Razorbacks are really woeful at switching, and trapping bad ball handlers seems to be a lost art. This team seems incapable of forcing bad or rushed shots or errant passes like Anderson has generally coaxed from his best squads, and that is utterly bizarre when you consider that five of the team's top eight scorers are considered guards.
Last year, Arkansas's success was mitigated by the SEC being thoroughly unworthy of the pollsters' respect, so the Hogs spent most of the year on the bubble despite piling up wins. This year, they are basically operating on an inverse principle: getting caught up in the maddening free-for-all that is a stronger league, top to bottom, and finding themselves playing their way out of safety and into peril as the record twists its way back toward the median. The upshot is that now, with so much at stake, Arkansas cannot afford to keep slipping by teams at home and struggling so mightily to defend them on their turf. A 15-8, 4-6 mark is not what most saw happening at this juncture, and it's frightening as hell to think that all four of those conference wins and a couple of the nonconference victories could have tilted the opposite way pretty easily.
Anderson cannot survive a collapse. I am not suggesting a new athletic director would be so bold as to dispatch him after being on the job a few months, and only weeks after granting him a contract extension, but I am affirmatively stating that a lousy finish to 2017-18 will have Anderson fighting for his job come fall, and he may well have to slough some or all of his staff to even stay in good enough graces for that.