I have a friend who has uttered this mantra, or some semblance thereof, for years: If the Hogs are winning on the football field, then no one will care about the basketball team. That is a rough, lightly embellished paraphrase of a harsh reality. Razorback sports of all manner take an obvious backseat to the gridiron goings-on, and that's why it is disheartening to see Mike Anderson's first Hog team playing so many early games in an echo chamber. Bud Walton Arena has long ceded its standing as one of the true collegiate hell-dens because the quality of play inside has been substandard for years, and this well-documented apathy, as much as anything else, led to Stan Heath and John Pelphrey being removed.
Despite audacious vows of message board cretins to return to the stands in droves when Anderson was hired, the unappealing schedule and the inescapable pull of the forthcoming Cotton Bowl have muted attendance. There's a tendency to panic about this apparent disinterest, but it is likely that once the curtains have finally closed on the football team's season, the lure of SEC games will correlate to bigger numbers in the stands. Nonetheless, there's a fair chance that more people will see non-conference baseball at Baum Stadium in chilly weather than will see similar action at Bud Walton. The most rabid Razorback supporters in Northwest Arkansas are showing up, and that's about it.
After nipping a Southeastern Louisiana team filled with transfers on Saturday, Anderson's squad was a rather pedestrian 6-3 (mid-week tilts against Eastern Kentucky and Louisiana Tech may enable the Hogs to push their record to 8-3 by the time this issue has been disseminated). There were known issues going into this season, namely a paucity of depth and a troubling lack of height. When Marshawn Powell wrecked his knee after two games, those wounds were exacerbated. This team wasn't well-equipped to threaten the balance of power in the SEC in any circumstance, but the loss of the versatile Powell added injury to insult. If you watched this team during its losses (Houston, UConn, Oklahoma), your morbid curiosity probably was satisfied. Because Rotnei Clarke mercifully ended his Razorback career early by tucking tail prior to his final year, Arkansas again finds itself lacking a shooting threat, but the guard play has generally been very good anyway. BJ Young is the Hogs' most complete freshman backcourt player in years, and sophomores Rickey Scott and Mardracus Wade are maturing and flourishing as expected in Anderson's system. As the season wears on, Hunter Mickelson and Devonta Abron must nibble away the minutes being granted to Michael Sanchez and Marvell Waithe; Mickelson is wondrously gifted but seems overly tentative at this point, and Abron simply needs polish because he has already demonstrated more of a post presence than the aforementioned seniors. The hallmark of an Anderson squad is feverish work on the defensive end, and even in defeat there have been spurts where the opponent was unbalanced and annoyed. Consistency has escaped these Hogs; dogged effort has not.
The few high-level talents on this team are completely green, and the contributions of the elder statesmen are so marginal that this squad sort of represents a pauper's Fab Five. This will not be an NCAA tournament team in all likelihood, but its nucleus for 2012-13 will be stronger as a byproduct. It is likely that with Powell, Clarke and Aaron Ross, who committed to Arkansas during the Bush administration but somehow failed to qualify academically in 2011, this could have been a 20- to 25-win squad with decent postseason prospects; the return of a motivated Powell next year along with a few signees could bring the Razorbacks to the cusp of competing for an SEC title.
Because of the aforesaid attendance shortfalls, these next few weeks represent a critical juncture. The lower expectations for this team would seem to allow for some margin for error: if Arkansas plays hard, which seems assured with Anderson at the helm, then fans will forgive a smattering of losses in the process. But that doesn't resolve the apathy problem. Will anybody get excited about next year if this year's team wins only 14-16 games? Doubtful.
If Anderson is indeed going to be able to recapture the spirit of this program, his charges must swing some miracles, play over their collective heads for a stretch and at least give the team a chance to host an NIT game. For all the miserable moments of recent times, there were signs that sentient beings would still populate the cavern if the mood is right. Arkansas's early burst in Pelphrey's second year — nonconference wins over Oklahoma and Texas — gave the building renewed vigor for a couple of weeks before the bottom fell out for that season and, in retrospect, for Pelphrey's Razorback career. Anderson cannot afford such a freefall: he must keep the ardent fans there for more than, say, three hours on a given Wednesday night.