Arkansas enters the Southeastern Conference tournament in, of all odd locales, St. Louis this week, and they arrive there with what we'll call the Baskin-Robbins resume. After 31 games, the flavors have mostly been sweet, but there are a handful of 'em that you wouldn't want to sample again.
Last week, as per usual in a 10-8 regular-season run through the league, the Hogs basically gave us both the delectable and the detestable within a few days of each other. First, there was the rousing 91-82 win over Top 15, conference co-champ Auburn on Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena, which was at its old-school, rollicking best for Senior Night. Daniel Gafford was a one-man wrecking crew with seven dunks and seven blocks en route to a 21-point performance that may have very well signaled his exit from Fayetteville after a single, dynamic season on the Hill.
At times the atmosphere, opponent, and timing of the game recalled the 1998-99 squad's rousing beatdown of a second-ranked, 25-1 Tiger team that had stormed out of the lower rungs of the SEC thanks to a suspicious influx of JUCO talent, namely Chris Porter. That was another Senior Night showdown for a Razorback squad that had muddled through conference play but was riding high after an impressive win over Kentucky a few days earlier. This Hog team echoed that bunch with a strong start to both halves, with many possessions punctuated by big dunks and splashdowns from three-point range. An electric crowd surely didn't hurt, and that nine-point final margin didn't do justice to the sort of thumping that the Hogs doled out.
Of course, there was another game after that, a road trip to close things out. And much like that team from 19 years ago did, this bunch of Razorbacks hit a sour flavor away from the comforts of home. In 1998-99, Nolan Richardson's last genuinely competitive Razorback team went down to Tuscaloosa to close out the regular season and promptly gave a listless effort in an 84-79 loss signified by two ugly stats: a 36 percent field goal shooting effort and a whopping 26 fouls, many of which were of the nitpicky variety, per the archives. That led to the Tide shooting 32 free throws and sinking 26, which was a meaningful advantage considering that the Hogs hit 21 of 27 tries and ... lost by exactly that five-point disparity.
Fast forward a score minus a year, and Arkansas threw out a similarly uninspired and undisciplined performance in its regular-season finale to finish two games over .500 in league play, just as the 1998-99 bunch did (thanks to the addition of Mizzou and Texas A&M, the Hogs finished 10-8 in SEC play this year, and went 9-7 back in the aforementioned season). The Hogs got pummeled on the boards and shot a pedestrian 5 for 15 from three, with Daryl Macon conspicuously accounting for none of the makes and only two attempts, but the real story was again at the foul line. These Tigers canned 27 of 33 shots, far outpacing the Hogs' 12 for 15 output, and that obviously spelled the difference in a 10-point final.
Before we lament the ever-lopsided foul numbers — and the Hogs had, you guessed it, 26 of them compared to Missouri's 17 — the real issue for the Razorbacks is not that they just constantly get screwed on the road. We can dispense with the understood truism that the officiating in this conference, regardless of court or field of play, could always be better. But Arkansas does itself in most of the time, has to foul a lot late, and ends up paying for its own inability to address basic fundamental lapses. And it happens time after time.
Case in point: The Hogs had slowly worked their way back from an eight-point second-half deficit to tie the score, 51-51, after Anton Beard made a layup off a Mizzou backcourt turnover. At that juncture, Arkansas was on a mild 13-6 run and playing salty defense, but panic soon set in. Adrio Bailey committed a foul on a transition attempt by Jeremiah Tilmon and he sank both tries. The Hogs promptly rushed downcourt for freshman Darious Hall to heave up a wild shot without any semblance of an offensive rebounding presence in place, and so Missouri promptly ran the court again and Jordan Barnett tossed in an unchallenged three to get the Tigers a five-point lead back. Arkansas proceeded to clang a lot of ill-advised jumpers and miss rotations defensively, and just like that, Missouri stays two possessions ahead of Arkansas the rest of the game.
Hog fans have every right to complain about the referees, but the fact is, these massive foul disparities do not occur in a vacuum. Mike Anderson, one might observe, stays generally composed and tries to coach his team through these variables; another, more jaded individual like myself might say that Anderson's complete lack of backbone with respect to the officials is becoming tiresome. Would it kill him to get a T here and there when things go off the rails, at worst to show his team he's cognizant of the perceived inequity on the floor or at best to get his squad fired up for the final minutes of a winnable game?
We'll hearken back to that 31 flavors theme and note that Arkansas won 21 games and finished above .500 in a very difficult conference, scoring some nice victories over ranked opponents while also notching three conference victories away from home. That's the savory stuff that makes you think there's postseason hope beyond the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament for these guys, and we again have to regrettably note that only three of the current Razorback players were so much as infants the last time the Hogs darkened the doors of the second weekend of the tourney. Anderson was brought here seven years ago to end that drought and it has not yet occurred, but Arkansas is just mercurial enough to put that skein to rest if it wants to, or it might well have already won its last game of 2017-18 on Senior Night.