Tread cautiously, Hog fans — this kind of success as we head toward March, in two sports, feels a little ominous, doesn't it?
The basketball program's remarkable resurgence carried onward during another 2-0 week of action, first with the Hogs avoiding a hangover after posting their two best efforts of the year in a win at South Carolina and a home rout of Ole Miss. They had to persevere a bit against Texas A&M, a team that has clearly faltered after a fine postseason run a year ago, before beating the Aggies 86-77 at Bud Walton Arena, boosted again late by a pretty raucous midweek crowd that numbered over 14,000 officially, which by modern standards constitutes an exceptional turnout.
Balanced scoring was again the order of the day. Five Hogs went into double figures against the Aggies, paced by Jaylen Barford's 16. The JUCO product's explosiveness was well known when Mike Anderson secured him for the last two years of his amateur career, and he's been in such a comfortable groove lately that it appears he's vying for preseason All-SEC honors to start 2017-18. His 16 points were at the forefront of another stellar offensive showing, but as usual, Arkansas got help from atypical sources in pulling away. Manuale Watkins put home 13 points and Dustin Thomas was good for nine points, five rebounds and zero turnovers. And Daryl Macon's newfound role as sixth man continues to reap benefits, as his 12 points off the pine led the Hogs to a 27-4 advantage for the reserves.
Beating A&M was critical to sustaining momentum in a league that seems destined to only earn four berths in the NCAA's field of 68. But the real test of this team's sudden maturation was going to be at Auburn, a year after the perennially downtrodden Tigers knocked off the Hogs at home behind a three-point barrage from Bryce Brown. A year ago, that loss kept the Razorbacks in a nasty late-season swoon that left them at .500 when it all wrapped up in the SEC Tournament.
There was no repeat to be had at Auburn this time, and there's something to be said for the Razorbacks' somewhat fickle defense being the key to the 79-68 win. This Tiger team is greatly improved over last year's 11-20 mess, and promises to be even better next year with Bruce Pearl working his possibly unethical magic to land some top-end recruits. But the Hogs were completely undisturbed by everything that went against them Saturday night on the Plains, including the scattershot officiating and Moses Kingsley's early foul trouble.
Again, it was Barford who carried the squad through some choppy seas. His game-high 20 was a unique feat: The streaky shooter came up empty on all five of his three-point tries, but remained undeterred as a penetrator and playmaker, getting to the rim all night and to the line nine times as well. With Dusty Hannahs throwing in some clutch long-range daggers and Macon adding another 13-point bench effort, Arkansas (22-7, 11-5 in SEC) survived Kingsley's extended absences. The senior was productive (eight points, six rebounds) in the scant 15 minutes of court time he got, but once again the lift in the paint came from Trey Thompson, who set career bests with 11 rebounds and 29 minutes of action, and he contributed six points and three assists for good measure. Arlando Cook also got a jolt of confidence with an eight-point first half.
Oddly, this five-game streak and the potential to land a big momentum-building blow this week at Florida have barely moved the national needle concerning this team. They logged all of three combined votes in the AP and USA Today polls, good enough to be 38th in each. But rankings are indeed of no consequence if they are a distraction to the team, and what impresses us about the Hogs of late is that they seem unconcerned by the outside perception of how they're faring. That closed-ranks way of thinking may reap major benefits as the calendar turns.
On the baseball diamond, Dave Van Horn's 15th campaign at the helm has begun in a fashion (6-0) that thankfully does not resemble the way his 14th ended. Arkansas is unranked after closing out the 2016 season with a woeful 12-game losing skid to finish 26-29, by far the worst season of the coach's otherwise impeccable tenure. But the Hogs have so far done a fine job of trying to shed the various labels that they arguably earned last spring when it appeared that some players were ready to end the season with plenty still at stake.
The 6-0 start has come at Baum Stadium against the likes of Miami of Ohio and Bryant, but it's nonetheless encouraging to see the team getting incredible production from players like Grant Koch and Jaxon Williams early. The pressing questions were whether the offense would have much going for it beyond Luke Bonfield and Carson Shaddy, and even against lesser pitching thus far, there are signs that the offense will be far better across the board than it was in 2016. Those two veterans were the only players to surpass the .300 mark last spring; after six games, they're not even among the top three or four hitters thus far, as Koch, Jake Arledge and Eric Cole have all been producing ahead of expectations.
Of course, the starting pitching has to also excel after a down year, and so far the three-man rotation of Trevor Stephan, Blaine Knight and Kevin Kopps has held up while veterans like Dominic Taccolini and Josh Alberius are working primarily in relief. It remains to be seen whether this will be the workhorse trio for the weekend series against ranked SEC teams, naturally, but Knight was stellar enough last year as a freshman and Stephan brings a big frame and overpowering stuff to the table after a successful two seasons in junior college. There's not a readily apparent Friday night linchpin here, but if the offense produces, Van Horn may not need a top-shelf weekend starter just yet.