This Pearls shall set an unofficial record for most bite-sized Razorback-related matter squeezed into one column space. Citing the venerable Samuel L. Jackson in the first "Jurassic Park," I beseech thee to hold on to thine butts.
We knocked the hiring of Jimmy Dykes as head women's basketball coach pretty damned hard when it was announced. There seemed to be no logic in favoring the greatly untested but affable commentator over the likes of a proven in-state commodity like UALR's Joe Foley, but Jeff Long gambled on it, and the mid-February report card shows a solid "B+" if you have to take out the red pen and assess it.
The women's program had been middling at best under Tom Collen, depressingly soft under Susie Gardner and, to be quite honest, not exceptional under Gary Blair, either. Frankly, but for a few sparks, the two-plus decades of SEC play had reminded Hog fans that much like in other sports, Arkansas could reasonably expect nothing better than being a mid-tier upstart from year to year. The first glance at this season's record (14-8, 4-6 in league play) might lead you to believe that Dykes' tenure will already settle into that cushy area, but there's a lot to like about what's going on.
At his introduction, Dykes claimed his team would "guard hard, and be hard to guard." I thought it was an unbearably cheesy way of saying the team would just, you know, do fundamental things right on offense and defense, but whatever. That groaner has at least resonated with the players, where it matters. Arkansas started SEC play with a brutal gauntlet of games and went 1-6 in the process, but the box scores showed some real positives. League titans Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Tennessee all had to scramble from behind to beat the Hogs with big second-half efforts; if anything, that kind of pattern shows that Dykes has the proverbial horses in the first half, but not enough depth with a nine-person roster to take it down the back stretch. That can and will be addressed.
The hoop men yet again surged back into ranked status, gaining sure-footedness after the debacle at Florida. Arkansas smashed two hapless foes at Bud Walton by 20 last week, pounding South Carolina 75-55 and sloughing off a shaky offensive performance with smothering defense to vanquish Mississippi State 61-41. It got the Hogs to the 18-win mark well before mid-February and sole possession of second place with a sturdy 7-3 mark, and solidified an NCAA tournament C.V. that is destined to improve.
Getting cold-cocked by official John Hampton & Co. at Gainesville may yet be the red-hot poker to the posterior that the team needed. Even with more sketchy perimeter shooting, Arkansas was so thoroughly superior to the Gamecocks and Bulldogs that it was of no consequence. If the mid-season lulls of Michael Qualls and Anthlon Bell can taper off quickly (Bell canned four threes against MSU, so he's perhaps on the right path), then the team's Portiscentric (trademark that!) offense gets less so, and the on-ball defense is only enhanced. This is a road week, but not a particularly nasty one, given that Auburn is still trying to find ways to close out games and that Ole Miss is doubtless being viewed as a revenge game since the Rebs sullied the Hogs' unblemished home record Jan. 15.
Quick notes on football recruiting: Bret Bielema and staff brought in a Top 25 class, one that is against clearly focused on line building first and skill people next. The Miller High Life-half-empty folks will yuk it up about how the ranking still lags behind much of the SEC generally, and lament the fact that K.J. Hill got loose in the final weeks. Then again, if you're a Busch Light-half-full sort of fella, doesn't it feel gratifying to hear Bielema talking earnestly about having three-star guys who can be coached and depended upon to improve and learn? The methodology in place within the Broyles Athletic Complex is unimpeachable: The coaches want top-flight kids, untainted by the process in general, who evidence a respect for the program, the system and themselves. I get the sense that if Bielema ever has a recruit saying he wants to play the ol' "Three-Hat Monty" routine live on ESPN, he's going to politely ask him to just leave the one with the Hog on it to the side.
Ok, last call-out: Hog baseball opens with a three-game slate at Baum Stadium against North Dakota this weekend. It's going to be frigid but sunny up there, so for anyone who braves the temps, shoot me back a report on how the boys look.