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On the bubble



Arkansas's basketball season has been mercurial to say the least. Two narrow wins at home and three losses in SEC play ranging from frustratingly close to inexcusably gross have set these Hogs on the bubble or near it, and that's not what fans expected after this team shot its way up the national RPI and into the Top 25 for a fleeting moment.

The Razorbacks finished off Missouri on Saturday at Bud Walton to move to 12-5 overall and 2-3 in conference play, snapping a three-game skid that was punctuated by the season's lowest point, a 21-point embarrassment to unranked LSU before home fans dying to see a better performance from this team. The Mizzou game was emblematic of the team's problems and virtues: Arkansas surged to an 18-point first half lead on the strength of a boost from spot starter Darius Hall, who came in for Daryl Macon and gave the Hogs 10 points and good defensive energy. But in the second half, Missouri swished a bunch of easy looks and ended up taking a lead late.

It all felt too familiar, and also felt possibly fatal to this team's long-term goals. This is ostensibly the most up-and-down gifted team that Mike Anderson has helmed in seven seasons, but the ship suddenly lost its rudder. Macon gave everything he had in a career-high performance against Tennessee and has mostly looked empty since, and Jaylen Barford's play has been inconsistent.

That's why Daniel Gafford's development is so crucial, and why his 15 points and defensive effort in the 65-63 win over the Tigers were imperative. The El Dorado freshman is being asked to do a great deal because Trey Thompson doesn't appear to be in game shape and because Adrio Bailey and Arlando Cook simply aren't post weapons. Because Gafford has almost as many dunks by himself halfway through this season as the 2017-18 team did on the whole, he's carrying the interior burden as ably as anyone could have expected, and yet that simply is not fair to him.

Arkansas is a team in desperation mode before Groundhog Day. Few teams can sustain a four-game conference losing streak and nudge into the tourney, but this team, blessed with a senior backcourt and Gafford's presence in the paint, is actually one that could. And that's what makes this midseason lull so intolerable: the team can and should be better. There have been some really bright spots and some really nasty ones, and that leaves the selection committee vexed on how to assess a team like Arkansas. Every year, some team with double digit losses and a sketchy league profile sits around on the sofas on Selection Sunday and wonders if it'll make that Top 68 or if those negatives are going to put them on course to Madison Square Garden for a poor consolation prize opportunity.

For this all to change for the better, the Hogs need Macon to break free from his current slump in a big way. The senior from Parkview is simply too dynamic and shoots too pure to be a sixth man, or to mysteriously start rattling free throws off the side of the iron. That resurgence is one that cannot wait: If he's not up for the two-step this week at Florida and then back home for Ole Miss, two teams that struggled outside of league play but have proven to be feisty in the new year, it may be time to sit him for an entire game to let C.J. Jones or Hall get even more extended work. Secondly, the Hogs cannot get anywhere until their defensive effort steadies. This team has permitted its opponent 50 percent or better shooting in four of the five losses, and while there have been some contested looks simply going down, the number of unguarded or lightly guarded players sinking jumpers or streaking to the hole is too high for a team with this kind of talent and supposed defensive acumen. When the Hogs got right in 2016-17, it was a function of that perimeter defense getting stingier and more physical, but not to the point of negligent, frequent fouling. Barford is the centerpiece of this, as he is strong but disciplined, and he's got to lead the likes of Anton Beard, Macon, Hall and Jones as well.

That will feed the offense of those players, and will accordingly mean Arkansas gets back to scoring 80 to 90 points per game, which represents a comfortable pace and benchmark for the Hogs. This is still an NCAA Tournament team and a potential darling in March if it can recover its mojo, and the remainder of January offers that chance.

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