Twenty-seven wins and the rediscovery of meaningful March basketball stamped Arkansas as a program of resurgence. Mike Anderson's leadership was finally reflected in the on-court product, and the Hogs accordingly shed some old bugaboos by winning away from home.
Of course, 48-plus hours of genuinely exceptional April basketball provided a jolting reminder of how far the gulf remains between the words "Hogball" and "elite." It's not to shortchange the team's admirable ascent, but the Hogs still look more like the quintessential mid-major upstart than the kind of titan that put on two brilliant shows in Indianapolis this weekend. Conference tentpole Kentucky didn't cede its visions of the pantheon season easily in a rugged battle with Wisconsin Saturday, and the Badgers slogged through exhaustion against Duke for a good 30 minutes before the Blue Devils, sensing the foe's underbelly, quickly reversed a nine-point deficit with brilliant guard play on offense and aggressive interior defense to win their fifth title in 24 years.
Ironically, it was a Blue Devil title game loss that marked a relevant parallel for those of us immersed in local culture. Duke trailed 48-39 Monday and Wisconsin smelled blood; in 1994, Arkansas was behind by a nearly identical score (48-38) but drew even quickly and then hounded the Blue Devils the rest of the way for a 76-72 victory that gave us both our historical athletic pinnacle and our present-day exemplar. Indefatigable teams — speaking of both conditioning and composure — win these battles even when their best players (Corliss Williamson in 1994, Jahlil Okafor this week) aren't at their best.
The script for Arkansas to follow back to championship basketball isn't as convoluted or ethereal as it might seem, to be honest. Pearls diagnoses it accordingly for 2015-16, and urges strict adherence to the dosages below:
1. Moses Kingsley absolutely must take a substantive leap in all phases. The flashes and bursts of a quality big-conference center have been there, interspersed with long stretches on the pine and some truly head-scratching moments of game action. The physique is getting there but the offensive skill set that Anderson was quite certain would appear has yet to, and time is now of the essence. When guys like Okafor and Frank Kaminsky grab the headlines in the Final Four, it's understandable: Both big men employ great footwork and agility in a varied offensive game, and throw around ample muscle to protect the paint. Kingsley has capabilities to take a four-star amateur pedigree up the ladder the way Kaminsky did, minus the three-point range, but he's got to make that leap now. The days of four-point, four-rebound games must be over, and Kingsley legitimately needs to develop a 12-15 point hand and a lot more tenacity on the glass to complement his good works defensively. This observation applies regardless of whether Bobby Portis returns, incidentally.
2. Jimmy Whitt will need to bring explosiveness and range to help Anthlon Bell finish his career in style. Bell's streakiness is a given, but even inconsistent shooters are known to thrive when there's at least one or two additional gunners able to relieve the burden at hand. Whitt's swagger, length and stroke are all undeniable. He will be a productive player as a freshman because of his pure scorer approach, but it's the effect he has on Bell that must resonate more. Poor Anthlon came off at times the last two years as a desperation chucker, so to speak. He was the deep threat, and Michael Qualls and others weren't dependable enough night in, night out to offer much shooting help, so Bell was left with a mess and a frantic mentality. And the team's .350 percentage from long range accordingly rated 137th in Division I.
3. The emphasis on pressure defense is fine, but Arkansas was often at its best defensively smothering teams in organic, traditional halfcourt sets, and cannot shirk its responsibilities to be tougher and leaner. At times when the Razorbacks gasped for points, the defense held serve and then some. The Hogs were listless against Mississippi State on the road, but survived. They had an awful stretch at South Carolina, but weathered that, too. The Florida game ended in a controversial loss, but the Hogs' late push toward victory was ballasted by a concerted effort to maximize help-side defense. It was usually a function of more commitment to clogging the paint and matching up against perimeter slashers and shooters, and it worked.
4. Anton Beard's game waxed and waned but the young man worked hard as a freshman and was, inarguably, the midseason spark that rescued Arkansas from its perennial hell on the bubble and pushed the team squarely into the tournament. His shot selection fell off late, but he was still hustling and generally making decisions belying his youth. If he's going to be the starting point guard, endurance will be an issue to reckon with: He's needed for 30 minutes every night come fall, and that means the wall he hit in March must be displaced for good.
5. Malik Monk. Malik Monk. And also, Malik Monk. It cannot be overstated the importance that an early commitment from the rising Bentonville senior would bring. He's an electric, once-a-generation player whose impact would be measured in what ripple effect he'd have on other in- and out-of-state prospects. Anderson was never going to secure the likes of Archie Goodwin, but now that this program has a buoy of a strong season thrown in the water, that's the sort of enticement that became critical to the ongoing effort to bring Marcus Monk's dynamic little brother to the Hill.