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Overcoming playing down to the cupcakes

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It's at least anecdotal evidence that Arkansas basketball is on a meaningful upswing, in this columnist's opinion, that a 29-point demolition of a MEAC school is your low point to date.

Even in two losses to California and Gonzaga, the Hogs showed quite a bit of potency for a team trying to cobble together a semblance of chemistry in Chaminade's crackerbox gym. When they listlessly plodded through the first half against Savannah State last week and carried a two-point lead to the locker room, though, this was that moment that had become queasily familiar over recent years.

It isn't that Mike Anderson's teams have scuffled badly during non-conference games over his three seasons, but there have been some nervous junctures. In 2011-12, the Hogs were bedeviled until the end by Utah Valley and Southeastern Louisiana; last winter, they were unsteady in the season opener against Sam Houston State and then struggled to put away Robert Morris, two wins that each came by a five-point margin.

For context's sake, Arkansas bombed SELA this year by a healthy 46 points, so it was already established that these guys are a quite a bit more dutiful and focused. Savannah State took full advantage of Michael Qualls' first-half sitdown — I guess we've got an inadvertent Pearls' jinx going here, since we had just sung his praises here last week —and employed a methodical pace. It worked. Only Rashad Madden's deft touch and smart shot selection gave Arkansas that slim 27-25 lead it had at the break.

That last sentence ought to tell you something. Yes, THAT Rashad Madden, the same one who was a favorite whipping boy for fans the past two seasons, was lighting it up from the very same territory that nipped at his Achilles heel for two solid seasons. Madden has shaken off all that, displayed confidence and maturation at both ends, and transfigured his game from liability to asset nicely. Before you dismiss his 21-point output as a byproduct of the competition, be reminded that the junior guard had only two double-digit scoring games all last year, and is now up to five such performances in nine games this season.

With Madden's confidence brimming and Qualls playing at a high level (both of their early season discipline issues notwithstanding and hopefully aberrations), there's something very odd afoot: Arkansas has two electric and athletic two-guards who are stroking it from the perimeter and penetrating like mad. That doesn't even include Anthlon Bell, who is in the midst of a major funk but is certainly capable of springing loose at any moment, and Mardracus Wade, who as a friend recently put it, has been practically buried beneath the bench due to ineffectiveness and lost confidence.

The consensus going into this campaign was that Arkansas would again struggle to make shots from outside. One-third into the schedule, we simply aren't seeing that. It's unreasonable to expect this squad to keep pumping in threes at a 39 percent clip, but imagine for a moment that any scaling back there is offset by the advancement of frontcourt players like Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley, and suddenly there's a pang of enthusiasm that hasn't been there for quite some time.

When BJ Young and Marshawn Powell were here last year, the Hogs had two gloriously talented players whose motivations ebbed and flowed. The flashes were too sporadic, though, and Arkansas was again stuck at home in the postseason for the fifth straight year. But the more pressing issue a season ago was that guys like Madden, Wade and Hunter Mickelson simply regressed when the circumstances demanded that they excel. Mickelson is gone and Wade seems resigned to his fate, but this has been the kind of start the Hogs needed, with even great things happening in the two defeats.

Anytime a team wakes up like the Hogs did against Savannah State, posting a 45-18 second half to end up blowing out the hapless Tigers, there's something working. Portis, showing an awful lot of prescience for an 18-year-old, flatly said the Hogs played down to the level of their competition for a half. The fact that their youngest player recognizes this and finds it intolerable now is one hell of a nice sign.

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