When the final seconds of an unusually dynamic and impassioned college basketball game ticked away, and a season of restorative value for Arkansas's long-beleaguered program ended, the moment for reflection that a turbulent schedule had delayed finally came.
For all the flaws, the Hogs were a 27-win team and held the loss column restrained to a single digit. The team composed itself on the road, blistered some quality opposition and got Bud Walton Arena enthused again after so many dormant years. Two seniors, Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris, at once contributed and yet reminded us all that their departures won't render volatile the so-called nucleus of the team. Anton Beard was enigmatic, then electric, then essentially spent — he followed the usual pathway that a heavily credentialed freshman point guard would — and at the tail end reminded us that his floor game and smarts compensate well for a yet-unstable offensive game. The bench was a mess at times, but offseason drills for the likes of Moses Kingsley and Anthlon Bell will get them both equipped to assume different, more consistent roles in the fall.
North Carolina was, let there be no notion to the contrary, the superior team. When the Heels finished off Arkansas 87-78 in a test of tempo and attrition, they did it by outclassing the Hogs at their own alleged methodology.
The Hogs were harassed into turnovers all evening, and it generated fast- break chances for UNC that looked more like a season-long highlight bank than a single game flurry of them. Marcus Paige's savvy and seasoning at the point meant much to the Heels, who have spent most of the past four months all over the map but are doing what well-assembled programs do at this occasion. Once spring hit, the off-kilter Carolina was gone and the Final Four dark horse was in its stead. Give credit where it justly belongs, and honor UNC Coach Roy Williams for again getting talent and pointing it properly at the center spot on the bracket.
UNC and Arkansas jockeyed for Sweet 16 quasi-immortality for a good half-hour. Neither team looked unwound from a first-round scare and both emerged thoroughly charged about reinventing themselves. Wofford and Harvard had forced the tempo and played the darling role to a hilt. Carolina was a scrambled batch of errors in the waning stages of a two-point win over the Crimson. And Arkansas had to dispatch the Terriers by simply just learning on the fly to play left-handed; in short, the Hogs were left to battle without Bobby Portis, mired in a late funk that had folks second-guessing his motivation and worried that delusions of professional dollars were dragging his game southward.
To be fair, Portis has had so much heaped upon him that the social media cries about his softening scouting profile obfuscated a brilliant season full of self-sacrifice, leadership and maturation. This was a case where the shots in November and December were roughly the same, even as the results weren't, and UNC saw that his skittish performance against undersized Wofford was something easily capitalized upon. Even as Mike Anderson's gameplan was developed to empower Portis, he was still out of his usual comfort zone and the shots were astray. His suspect free throw shooting against Wofford demonstrated that he really had lost his way.
But Portis remains the absolutely critical centerpiece of any 2015-16 designs to proceed past this point, because he remains young and indelibly gifted. If his body and mind take a huge leap, he's a Wooden Award favorite next fall, after being a flawed but deserving finalist this season.
And if Michael Qualls does more to refine himself — ballhandling, shot selection and on-ball defensive discipline — he again returns with Portis to form the top duo in the conference. Without any peer, frankly. The decision now rests in the hands of self-interested scouts who believe that they can upsell the NBA potential of both young men to unsupported levels.
The problem with both is that they've thrived on the other. Where would either stand as a potential draftee without the other sharing the scoring load or amping up his game while the other struggled? Next fall presents an opportunity for them to play a bit more independently, mentor to more youth with the likes of Ted Kapita and Jimmy Whitt entering, and grow from a belated but appreciable franchise rebirth.
Arkansas basketball is a puzzle lacking pieces and seemingly sitting on a fragile precipice as it is reassembled. The 2014-15 season was, though, for all its myriad frustrations, a welcome recovery of the blueprint.