Rest easy now, Arkansas fans. Basketball is essentially reborn here, and for a change, the renaissance seems to have legs and a sense of gender equity.
Both Razorback programs return to the NCAA tournament after layoffs this week, and let's first not overlook the fact that Jimmy Dykes' women's squad earned probably more respect than any 17-13 team has previously. Seeded 10th, in fact, this bunch is being properly credited for staying afloat despite a nasty schedule. When Dykes was hired, Pearls was among a few that scoffed at the mere idea that an unproven but affable and knowledgeable guy could get a long-tepid entity to catch fire.
To be sure, this is no world-beater, but it's a team that far outpaced its record with quality of play. The humiliations of the Tom Collen and Susie Gardner eras disappeared almost immediately. Those teams would throttle nonconference opponents and then become indistinguishable and punchless against the best of the SEC. At least for a year, and theoretically longer with a young nucleus returning, Dykes has something appealing, competitive and potentially dangerous. Where UA Athletic Director Jeff Long banked on the rookie head coach was as a recruiter, so the offseason should offer much promise if he secures backcourt leadership.
The men's team got pasted again by Kentucky to end an otherwise commendable conference tournament run. Beating Tennessee and Georgia in Nashville only seems like a modest achievement on the surface: The league slate is so dramatically improved, and so much deeper even in the lower recesses of the rankings, that taking down a couple of groups of that sort amounts to something. Even if the Wildcats were simply too fierce on the final day, capitalizing largely on a late first-half spurt that drove the margin from a few to a bundle in quick order, Arkansas had a don't-quit brand of nastiness that left a few of Kentucky's vaunted arsenal bleeding, limping, wincing or complaining. And that was in the second half, with the outcome basically never in question.
Mike Anderson now takes a 26-win team into an opening-round game against Wofford, which is no slouch of a program, to say the least. The challenge is evident because of the long-held and oft-validated belief that a 12-5 matchup offers the lower-seeded group the most available vehicle to an upset. The fifth seed is often a talented but exceedingly flawed one, while the 12th tends to be a mid-major dynamo that fears nothing and plays with the weight of history in its favor. Add in the mysterious decision to ship the Hogs to Jacksonville, Fla., a trip roughly three times as long as the one the Terriers will be making, and you can see why so many pundits are tabbing this as something of a foregone conclusion.
Arkansas isn't undisciplined, though. And though the Hogs have pretty much felt secure in their place in this tourney for over a month, this is still a team that has all of two NIT games in the last three seasons to show for its steady, if unremarkable, ascent. Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis want to demonstrate their wares to scouts, maybe not for the upcoming NBA draft but the one to follow. Guys like Nick Babb and Jabril Durham itch to make more impact now. It's an invigorating experience for everyone else, but if the Hogs want to prolong their stay to the second weekend, they're going to need to exhibit that same imperviousness that stood out during a late-season burn through the meat of the conference schedule.
In other words, playing close games won't be an audacious and mysterious thing. Wofford is a perfect foe because the Terriers will be fairly well suited to run, and not all that equipped to bang down low. It's virtually a strength-on-strength showdown that should be one of the more entertaining opening games because of the personalities on the sideline (Mike Young is one of the game's less celebrated but fiery competitors, a man who has built the Wofford program from the ground to the apex in methodical fashion) and the collection of athleticism on the floor. Guard Karl Cochran is a certified scorer and slasher, but the frontcourt girth is lacking.
The wild-card prediction cometh: The Hogs adjust at halftime and dust off the Terriers by double digits, with Moses Kingsley providing an unexpected offensive boost against the short front line. That'll vault the Razorbacks into a second-round game with North Carolina, and the mercurial Tar Heels hit a wall against the pressing Hogs. Arkansas had good fortune against the venerable program in both the 1990 and 1995 tourneys, and 20 years later, the Hogs will be enjoying a return to the Sweet 16 on the strength of Qualls' 27 points and merciless assault on the rim.
Welcome back to the big time ... I hope.