That whole "Blame Mike Anderson" headline a couple of weeks ago was, you know, designed to motivate the guy. I swear.
Arkansas took its most sure-footed step toward regaining postseason traction on Saturday night, and did so in a game that was a compelling throwback to high-level conference games of years past. Ole Miss had given the Hogs a nasty blemish a month ago, a 96-82 drubbing at Bud Walton Arena that pretty much singlehandedly drew out the venom from me in that aforesaid condemnation. Anderson seemed befuddled and strategically handcuffed that night.
Things got immediately better as Arkansas secured three quick wins in sequence from there, and then when Florida nipped the Razorbacks in a most dubious manner to start this month, Anderson finally showed that fight he promised and for which fans have pleaded. He called out the officials. He praised his team's effort in the face of skewed factors beyond their control. He showed that he didn't just care about his guys, but that he wanted them to extract sweetness from that bitter moment.
It has happened, too. Sure, Arkansas got to pick on lowly South Carolina and Mississippi State at home, and dismantle Auburn decisively on the road, but that was all window dressing for a date at Ole Miss' spartan little excuse for a tinderbox. So many obstacles lay before the Hogs: This was the opponent that destroyed them in an unnervingly easy manner four weeks prior, and also the foe that really has been the symbolic yoke around the program's neck for the better part of the past 20 years. What else, you ask?
Well, when the game tipped, it was evident that Arkansas had the kind of energy and focus it often lacked in critical road contests up until this year. The Hogs' greatest evidence of team-wide maturation is showing prior to, and then in the immediate minutes after, the tipoff. Arkansas fell behind hard at Tennessee, but thanks to resiliently fighting back in the final moments of that one, the team reassured itself that its collective will to compete was far stronger than anything the program has had in a good bit. That same vigor was on display at Florida (Hogs went down by nine in the last minutes only to pull ahead with 11 seconds left).
Against the Rebels, Arkansas was polished in most areas, save crashing the defensive glass. Shot selection in the first half was nearly pristine and possession efficiency was genuinely on a level not seen much. The Hogs staked themselves to a 40-36 halftime lead, yet the sentiment at the break was that it could have, and certainly should have, been a wider margin. Why? Ask the guys in stripes, who once again managed to swallow the whistle at one end and puff without hesitation at the other, leading to the Rebels shooting 14 free throws while Arkansas didn't get one.
Anderson, thankfully, took whatever reproach he might've had directly to the players. ESPN commentators suggested that the only way to fix that kind of disparity was to address it, quite literally, head first, and Rashad Madden came out of the gate with a bold cut to the rim. He drew contact that, of course, wasn't whistled, but it set a different tone for the Hogs' second-half offense. While Bobby Portis was suitably shackled after the break, the rest of the team refused to anchor its feet to the floor and invest all reliance upon the sophomore star.
As much as anything, that spirit was what carried the team to its biggest win of the season. Michael Qualls took a TV timeout goading from Anderson to heart, playing possessed over the final eight minutes as the teams went back and forth, and Madden delivered probably his most inspired 20 minutes of the entire season. The upperclassmen in the backcourt did their thing while young gunner Anton Beard coolly hit every shot he took en route to a career-best 14 points and Manny Watkins ended up with eight off the pine. And it was Watkins who, with six seconds left, slipped around Ole Miss' interior defense just long enough to take a deft shovel from Madden and throw it in from a few feet away for the first game-winner of his life.
The 71-70 victory was transcendent stuff, the kind of game that we used to see regularly and take for granted. Two well-coached squads fought for outright ownership of second place in a conference that is now, finally, more than a smattering of assorted fodder for whichever Kentucky or Florida team is the designated titan for that season. Sure, the Wildcats are still unbeaten, but there are chinks in the armor and there are teams that have exposed those through adept, responsible game management. Arkansas draws its shot at Rupp Arena at the end of what has been, quite frankly, a pivotal month of basketball, and you can bet that if this momentum is preserved through the next three games ahead, that Feb. 28 date will have all the trappings of a rivalry game that we might've feared were forever lost.