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Solidly second tier



It only makes sense that in this numbing era of Razorback slip-and-falls, the Hogs could really put vaunted Kentucky to the test at Rupp Arena for a good 30 minutes of action ... and end up losing by 26 points.

The 97-71 loss last Saturday was on the heels of the Hogs capturing a critical road win against Tennessee, and there was a gossamer-thin layer of hope for something special happening in Lexington. After all, this is Mike Anderson's most balanced and disciplined team from top to bottom, and there was that added motivation of showing the state's Public Enemy No. 1, defector and likely All-American Malik Monk, that he made an egregious error heading east for glory and exposure.

Monk was a nonfactor, which may have been by design. He got off to a quick start but ended up with a near-season-low 12 points and didn't make a single three-point try. Of course, Kentucky has such a stable of rangy, quick and agile teenagers that it's basically inconsequential when a 22-point scorer with lottery pick moxie is a tad off his game. De'Aaron Fox was the primary stabilizer Saturday night, knifing to the basket basically at will for a game- and career-high 27 points. He keyed the second-half burst that set Kentucky free from the fleeting and strange grasp of a competitive home game.

Where Arkansas faltered was on the defensive end. Jaylen Barford had a terrific first half and was arguably the best player on the court for the first 20 minutes, but once he soaked up a little foul trouble, his night was more or less over. Daryl Macon was productive again, too, but the Hogs desperately needed Dusty Hannahs to show out, and the senior who has been so damned dependable just could not locate a shooting rhythm. He didn't fail to hit double figures in the first 12 games, but has now posted two six-point duds in the last four outings, clanging nine of 10 three-point tries in those season-worst games.

When Hannahs can't find the touch, the team is going to suffer. Macon has a nice enough stroke but is genuinely the only other long-range threat on the roster, with Anton Beard, Barford and CJ Jones simply being too sporadic with their perimeter production.

The team is, of course, somewhere between average and good at this point, with a 12-3 overall mark and 1-2 in SEC games. The early Florida-Kentucky gauntlet was a known challenge from the moment the schedule was generated, so there's really no shock value in the record or the team's performance. Moses Kingsley's been a shade disappointing for a preseason SEC player of the year choice, lacking first-half aggression too often, but usually making up for that with stellar play around the rim. That said, he's hitting free throws and blocking shots at a career-best clip, and others seem to be making up for his scoring deficiencies thus far. Macon and Barford have been about as productive as expected; Beard's easily playing the best of his tumultuous three-year run, and Dustin Thomas has contributed nicely. The bench scoring is wildly erratic.

The long and short of Arkansas basketball is that it stands shoulder to shoulder with its football compatriots: stuck many layers below the league's ostentatious frontrunner, but still capable of having successes in fits and starts. That's not going to be enough for many people who still harbor hopes that this program can renew its long-expired membership in the national hardcourt pantheon. That's also a dying breed of fan, to be frank. When the Hogs won 27 games two seasons ago, with Bobby Portis at the forefront, it still felt all very much like the peak for the program in its current iteration, and that season ended before the Sweet 16 thanks to North Carolina.

The Hogs have a fine nucleus now, and it promises to be enhanced by the influx of amateur talent from within the state's borders in 2017-18, but to what end? As long as Calipari continues to prowl the ESPN 150 for elite talent, he's going to secure it and make it work to his advantage for the five months he's got it in competitive action. This is not to suggest that you can't be supportive of a second-tier team, but try not to delude yourself into thinking the echelon above is attainable, because right now there's simply no going into Rupp and taking that kind of talent all the way to the wire.

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