Man, don't I look like a buffoon. Again.
Pearls gives the basketball Razorbacks, and in particular Coach Mike Anderson, plenty of adulation after a three-game league winning streak vaults them briefly into contention in the ever-volatile SEC. A three-game losing streak — two achingly close road defeats sandwiched around a no-show at home against Kentucky — is what naturally ensues.
So the tenor here turned dramatically a week ago, and I took aim at Anderson in particular for what I perceived to be a dearth of crunch-time coaching acumen. Suppose that'll keep going at this point, because lo and behold, the Hogs embraced "must-win" games with gusto.
At 9-10, 3-4 in SEC play, Arkansas could ill afford another loss ... at all. So when arguably the hottest team in the country comes to your place, it's cause for panic. But not only did the Hogs keep then-No. 5 Texas A&M fully at bay throughout a rough-and-tumble game at Bud Walton Arena last Wednesday night, they more or less controlled the proceedings against the same team that had a 10-game winning streak and had popped the Razorbacks in the jaw with a 92-69 beating at College Station less than a month prior.
The difference was at the defensive end. The Aggies had an unusually difficult time getting clean looks, which translated to 39 percent shooting from the floor and a season-worst 21 turnovers. The inverse: Arkansas "played clean," as Bret Bielema likes to say, with a 40-point first half that was carried by competent, crisp shooting everywhere, especially from beyond the arc (6 for 11) and at the free throw line (4 for 4).
Then, the old demons started to creep in. When the Hogs would push the lead to eight points early in the half, the Aggies responded with a quick burst to take a narrow lead. But Arkansas finally looked like a team that had drawn some lessons from its legacy of nip-and-tuck heartbreak, pushing the lead back out to a few points on the couple of occasions that A&M surged ahead in the second half. The entire final 15 minutes was played within a margin of no greater than five points either way. Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs sensed the pressure of the moment and responded with big baskets and free throws in the final two-and-a-half minutes, staking the Hogs to a 74-71 lead, and D.J. Hogg's three-point try went awry, giving the Hogs their first win over a Top 5 team since they walloped No. 2 Florida three seasons ago.
The encore was another chance to host a Texas-based team, with Tech coming to Fayetteville on Saturday as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge that, for the most part, went predictably the way of the power brokers in the former conference. But despite the 7-3 Big 12 "win" in this marketing showdown, the Hogs did what they could to reflect the best of the Southeastern Conference against Tubby Smith's athletic but shooting-challenged Red Raiders.
It didn't start well, but Hannahs was fortunately so keyed up at the opportunity to play his old team that he singularly kept the Razorbacks in range in a 21-point first half that had all the earmarks of the junior's game — deep threes, soft floaters, and nifty moves in traffic. The rest of the team started to help out early in the second half, and Arkansas had built an 11-point lead on Anthlon Bell's three-pointer before the Raiders made a major adjustment by switching to a 1-3-1 zone. It flat-out baffled Anderson's crew, which fell behind by as many as five as the clock started to wind off. Hannahs got cold, Bell couldn't get loose, and some puzzling substitutions left offensively challenged players like Trey Thompson on the court for too long.
Kingsley, thankfully, stayed in sync. The junior, who ranks among the nation's greatest improvement stories, kept the script going with all 17 of his points coming after halftime. His flailing basket late pushed the game to overtime, and the Hogs exerted control from there. Jabril Durham, shackled much of the day, had six of his eight points in the extra period, and Bell shook off a full day's worth of hip-checks and contested shots by getting free to splash home a big three late.
Clearly, this team goes as its Big Three goes: Against the Aggies, the Kingsley-Bell-Hannahs trio went for 52 of the 74 on the board, and they combined for 54 on Saturday. Each of these players has a feel for when his moment should come, too. Bell got untracked early to set the tone against A&M, whereas Hannahs and Kingsley alternated top-option status in the Tech game as it wore on. The reason experience is so important in a college game bereft of it? Teams like Arkansas can still be competitive if not altogether dangerous when seasoned players can sense, and respond to, trends in the game.
That's why, even at a modest 11-10, Arkansas has so much still at stake. The back end of the SEC slate is not all that overwhelming with two games against A&M and ones against Kentucky and LSU already in the rearview.