By derek jenkins
The lights went dark in Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas had whipped up on Northwestern State during the first half, playing with ferocity if not much grace. The house fell remarkably silent: The sparse and yawning crowd whispering among themselves, the student section tamed by the holidays. A few rows ahead, a youth basketball team that spent the first half shooting wide-eyed glances at their coach every time a Hog did something unimaginable had begun to get antsy.
I was alone, which is becoming something of a habit. I snagged a free upper deck ticket from one of the ushers again, though I planted myself in one of the empties right behind the band. In the dark, with warm and faithful fans moving around like bats in a cave, as the pom squad took the floor to perform some Nutcrackery toy soldier dance, it seemed as good a time as any to get a handle on the state of Razorback Athletics.
What a change from a year ago: A young and energetic new basketball coach, an embattled but tremendous new football coach and an increasingly popular new athletic director. We've taken a lot of hits, spent a lot of money, and are well on our way to righting the ship. We've gone from all bullshit to all business.
Arkansas basketball sure looks different with John Pelphrey dancing on the sidelines. His demeanor renders him a supportive chest-bumper one minute and a foot-stomping disciplinarian the next, the kind of fruitful bipolarity that solders teams together when they would otherwise fall to pieces. You've got to admire a coach who can have three players on the ground chasing a loose ball when they're already up by 30 points.
Seniors who have under-achieved their entire careers look leaner and meaner than ever. Darian Townes has shown more hustle this season than anyone thought he could muster. Charles Thomas, always the leader, has taken a backseat to the guards while remaining the firestarter we need in tough spots. And those guards are coming around, only slowly.
Patrick Beverly and Sonny Weems have the look of playmakers still getting accustomed to the pace of their own game, often a couple steps ahead of the competition but sometimes four ahead of themselves. Our sloppiness on offense might be attributed to Pelphrey's new system, but in other ways resembles the frustratingly crude attack of Stan Heath: Pass it around the perimeter for 10 to 15 seconds, then take a wild shot that anyone short of Allen Iverson would avoid. We just look confused.
But our defense has made good on Pel's promise of tenacity. Oklahoma, with the help of a ferocious home crowd, beat us from beyond the are. And like many of the games we gave up during Heath's tenure, the missed opportunities were clearly deducible from our field goal percentage, our dismal average from the free throw line and our strings of ridiculous turnovers.
Still, we look better than Kentucky. Some healthy competition will toughen us up, and one good road victory will pull that thorn from our sides. All in all, 2008 is looking like a really good year.