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Not worthy



There's something to be said for an Arkansas basketball team that spends two-and-a-half games looking like quitters before rising off the mat. But after storming back at LSU on Saturday night, did the Hogs do enough to convince a fickle NCAA Tournament selection committee that they still might belong in the March Madness field?

At this point, I say no. Splitting games against Missouri and Vanderbilt and having to fight like hell to forge a sweep against the worst Louisiana State team in a good while doesn't augur well for the postseason. Let's also revisit the Hogs' nonconference slate, which at the time was billed as one where the team could make a little hay:

* A 92-83 victory over Fort Wayne looked especially good when the Mastodons went out and beat then-No. 3 Indiana back before winter solstice. Now it's lost some measure of luster because Fort Wayne has stumbled pretty badly in the Summit League, losing five out of seven and slipping to 6-6 in a league where it was thought to be a contender.

* Beating Texas-Arlington, a prohibitive Sun Belt favorite, was a nice achievement in a way, but the Mavericks are part of a logjam in a crowded field that incidentally also includes a very good Arkansas State team with a record that, at press time, is identical to their Northwest Arkansas foil (18-7).

* Stephen F. Austin, coming off a rousing run in last year's NCAA Tournament, is just a middle-of-the-road, 13-11 team in the Southland now, a function of the team's experienced core being gone and the team's then-head coach, Brad Underwood, heading off to Stillwater, Okla., to take over the Oklahoma State Cowboys last year (more on that squad momentarily).

* The loss to Minnesota wasn't pretty, and sadly, while the Golden Gophers are a commendable 18-7 overall, the Big Ten is similarly situated on the national scene as the SEC. There are three viable tourney teams (Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin), and Minnesota sits squarely in the middle of the league standings. So what might've at least been arguably a quality loss now looks like a knock against the Hogs when the selection committee is trying to separate tourney wheat from NIT chaff.

* Oklahoma State has really used the rout of the Razorbacks in the Big 12-SEC Challenge to springboard back into the NCAA tourney fray, but at 16-9 overall, and having lost six straight at one point, do the Cowboys have a legitimate chance of reversing the course of the season? In a bit of irony, it might come down to a choice between the Hogs and Cowboys, and if you were a neutral party, wouldn't the 28-point rout that Okie State leveled Arkansas with back in January be a substantial determinant of which way you'd swing on the question?

The Hogs' in-conference performance is clearly damning, too. Mississippi State, Florida and a really mediocre Vandy team won at Bud Walton Arena, and the Hogs tanked road games against Mizzou and Kentucky in ugly fashion. At 18-7, 7-5 after the indisputably fine little bounce-back at Baton Rouge, the Hogs are just sitting there with an average and weird tournament profile, and not too many opportunities left to move the needle.

It starts this week with a game at South Carolina, which, while definitely one of the premier teams in the conference, is imminently beatable and inherently flawed. The Gamecocks struggled through a four-overtime midweek game against Alabama, losing by four, and that showed all the chinks in the armor.

Should the Hogs vanquish South Carolina and follow that with a clean performance at home against a steady but only NIT-worthy Ole Miss team, the 20-win mark is reached and there's a little sunshine hitting the program at the right moment. Timing has been a real problem for Mike Anderson in his six seasons here, as the team has either limped to the finish or, more notably, spent only 40 minutes of court time at the SEC Tournament, where a team's bubble can harden or blow out in a matter of a single sleepy afternoon.

The best news after Arkansas woke up is that the likes of Dusty Hannahs and Anton Beard, two of the more seasoned guards in the league, don't feel compelled to mail it in just yet. There was a plainly evident malaise in the losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt that made it appear Anderson was potentially overseeing his final games on the Hill. It isn't necessarily that beating LSU with an authoritative second half gives him a reprieve, but it did show that there's spark and a fighting spirit still emanating across the roster.

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