It's March, and up in the Ozarks, there is madness. Let's not confuse this with a delusion that the Arkansas basketball programs will be participating in the NCAA tournaments on either the men's or women's side, but it's been an eventful few days in Razorback Country to put it bluntly.
Both basketball teams, in fairness, did endeavor to wrap up the regular season the right way. The men's squad has followed three bad losses with three good wins, the last two of which may have been among the season's chief accolades. First, the Hogs walloped LSU, 85-65, at Bud Walton Arena during the weeknight tilt, and the most genuinely encouraging aspect of this was the team's ability to stretch out a narrow lead and demonstrate closing ability. After a 34-32 seesaw first half, Arkansas piled up 51 second-half points, and perhaps the best news was that Trey Thompson and Jimmy Whitt came up large off the bench with 25 combined points. It was a crippling loss for the Tigers, who now look destined for the NIT despite having the country's consensus top individual talent in Ben Simmons.
That win was followed by only the second true road victory of the year, a fairly businesslike 10-point win over undermanned Tennessee. And yet again, it was an efficient (59 percent shooting) second 20 minutes and excellent bench support that carried the day. Much-maligned Anton Beard had 10 of the Hogs' 27 points from reserves, and the Volunteers were punchless with prolific scorer Kevin Punter sidelined. Consider this: Arkansas won for only the third time in Thompson-Boling Arena, a venue that has not exactly hosted titans the past quarter-century, so even in a year with both programs scuffling a lot, it was a solid win that has the Hogs eyeing better-than-expected seeding for the conference tourney.
The women even shook off two rough road outings by throttling Ole Miss at home, and it's undisputed that Jimmy Dykes' extremely young crew is better now than it was two months ago. At 7-9 in league play after beating the Rebels handily, 60-49, Arkansas's literal and metaphorical postseason occurs now with the SEC Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., starting Thursday. Jessica Jackson continues to be a steady scorer, and freshmen Malica Monk and Jordan Danberry are steadily gaining confidence in assuming leadership roles. The problem with this group is that it shoots poorly, belying the on-court effort it has given all year: only two regulars, Jackson included, are better than 40 percent from the floor, and nobody outside of Jackson scores more than nine per game. If Dykes can remedy the offensive woes with better depth, there's no question that this is as solid a team nucleus as the program has had in the post-Gary Blair days.
Off the hardcourt, onto the diamond: Arkansas baseball is scalding, and soared up the national rankings after an 8-0 start that included three wins over ranked programs in Houston over the weekend. Beating the likes of Rice, Houston and Texas Tech in the Houston College Classic was a dramatic departure from recent neutral-site invitational tourneys in which the program has participated the past few years. Instead of getting pinned with agonizing losses where offensive output or defensive gaffes were costly, the Hogs made all three games academic in different ways. Dominic Taccolini again proved that he's the frontline starter with six stellar innings of work against the Owls in the first game, then after that the bats took over. Michael Bernal popped two homers to lead a 12-run onslaught in a rout of the Cougars on Saturday, and then he added another as Arkansas shook off an early 5-0 deficit to the Red Raiders.
The rub for Dave Van Horn's team is how it will adapt to conference play because the starting pitching has been shaky so far, and somebody has to emerge as a consistent weekend starter. Keaton McKinney got lit up on Sunday, not even making it out of the first frame, but the resourceful and deep bullpen went the extra mile to handcuff the Raiders. The unquestioned stat of the weekend, though: zero errors through the entire trio of games. If the defense holds together this well — and it should, being anchored by experienced players like Bernal, Clark Egan, and Rick Nomura — then pitching deficiencies will be mitigated greatly. There's a lot of excitement about this team even after the consensus best player in the nation went in the Top 10 of the MLB draft last June, so that speaks volumes about the stable of talent being assembled.
Lastly, we go back to the linchpin program. Bret Bielema has been left scrambling with position coach departures again, but could he have possibly plugged holes better than by bringing in world-class recruiter and running back tutor Reggie Mitchell from Kansas and then filling the defensive backfield void with former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads? We can't overstate the value of putting assistants of this caliber into the mix at any juncture, but especially in the 11th hour before spring drills begin. Rhoads' defensive acumen is unquestioned and Bielema himself noted at the Petit Jean Razorback Club function Monday night that after speaking with Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez about which defensive coach gave his spread attack the most fits, Rhoads' name came up immediately (he helmed the defense at Pittsburgh when Rodriguez was bringing the West Virginia program up to national competitor status).
Arkansas assistants are clearly coveted. Bielema brings them in, they perform, and they move along. Is this nomadic pattern a slight snakebite? Sure, it is. But what would you rather have? A coach who expands his reach to all corners of the country and even the professional ranks to find willing and able help, or a coach who hires the likes of James Shibest, David Lee, Paul Petrino, and such, simply out of convenience and nepotism disguised as loyalty? It's a no-brainer. Go get good help, and the dividends are visible. Bielema's 3-9 shipwreck of 2013 is a distant memory, and his 15-11 composite record since that time could inarguably be about four or five games better if the team had been able to slough the whole "culture of losing" that had gotten awfully ingrained.