As if you needed further convincing that Arkansas Razorback basketball is a rudderless vessel with nary a trace of luck to keep it seaworthy, last week's pair of tilts probably did wonders to skew your perception.
Crippled by an indisputably awful loss at Georgia, and already facing the prospect of a lost season before the end of January, the Hogs showed due desperation at Bud Walton Arena against Missouri, a competent if still fringe NCAA tourney team. Buoyed by a decent mid-week crowd, Arkansas canned 12 threes and forced 19 Tiger turnovers. Bobby Portis had one of the better all-around efforts of his freshman season (16 points, seven rebounds, and even Michael Qualls posted a 16-point game that suggested his conference lull was about to end. But Mizzou did what it customarily does to the Hogs: battered them by a wide margin on the boards, and even more damning, held the decisive advantage at the foul line. For all those who lament the readily seen officiating folly in this league, this game was bewildering, as the home-cooking that often swings things against the road squad didn't fly on this night. The Tigers' nailed nine more free throws in eight more attempts, hardly proof of any kind of mass conspiracy, but in what finished as a 75-71 Missouri victory, it was decisive nonetheless.
By the time Arkansas then arrived in Baton Rouge to play a greatly-improved LSU team — again, reasonably skilled at most positions but arguably in the mix as one of the final projected entrants in a 68-team March field — they did so with Qualls and Alandise Harris staying home. The always-nebulous phrase "indefinite suspension for violation of team rules" accompanied this news, bringing to mind the selfsame issues that plagued John Pelphrey's tenure to an absurd degree. Arkansas would have appeared to be thoroughly overmatched now, and it predictably showed early as LSU bolted out to a 20-point first-half lead.
Credit is due, however, to the husk of the Hog team that surged back to within six points late before succumbing 88-74. Kikko Haydar, as he often does, responded to the plea for warm bodies to provide serviceable minutes: the senior put up a career-best 15 points, and made some big perimeter baskets and free throws in a spirited second half. Portis thrived again despite LSU's tremendous length inside, and the Hogs weathered bad overall shooting to knock down 25 of 27 free throws. In a rather bizarre twist, the home team got whistled for a lot of the 50-50 calls and even more incredibly, Arkansas cashed in appreciably at the line.
But LSU wore the Hogs out inside, with the anchors (super-frosh Jordan Mickey and bulked-up junior Johnny O'Bryant) doing substantial damage at both ends: 45 combined points, 20 boards and six timely blocks from Mickey alone. It's this kind of interior dominance that has bedeviled the program for a long time, but it also has Hog fans begging for more size on the floor at one time. Mike Anderson has forgotten more about the sport than any of us will ever hope to learn, but the curious decision to never play Portis and the gifted but raw Moses Kingsley simultaneously seems nonsensical at best. Arkansas isn't going to win many rebounding battles regardless, but its spotty perimeter play is enough alone to warrant a significant personnel shift, right? Anthlon Bell, Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott simply aren't producing enough to justify extended minutes, and Kingsley, though offensively limited, is yanking down more rebounds per minute than anyone on the team. He's a project, but a useful one, so...make use of him.
The root causes for a 2-6 start in one of the weaker basketball leagues in the country are numerous but Arkansas is, impossibly, still perfectly capable of getting a lot of these niggling ills cured against the remaining slate. Now, would an 8-2 rebound, starting with a home win against Bama and a road victory at Vanderbilt, be enough to persuade a selection committee? Hard to say. It's even harder to fathom a team that barely cracks 50 points at Texas A&M and Georgia getting its collective juices flowing well enough to have that sort of resurgence, obviously, but the final 10 games in this league are by and large the kinds of games that Anderson built his early coaching career on.
At UAB and then at Missouri, he had a knack for getting those close wins. The 31-win team of 2008-09 surged to a Big 12 tournament title and all the way to the Elite Eight on the strength of razor's-edge wins. That team wasn't laden with next-level skill but it was composed and mature beyond measure, capable of taking the score into the 90s and beating you with that signature pace that the coach covets, but surprisingly adept at slogging in the halfcourt sets, too.
Impossible as it may seem, there are occasional, meaningful moments where Arkansas actually demonstrates this kind of resolve, but those are offset by the rough patches. As declared in this space a week ago, there isn't much cause for optimism about the program at this juncture, and the odds of recovery are long, but six weeks of basketball is still six weeks for Anderson to learn whether his beleaguered team has any sort of discernible pulse.