Hard to fathom that losing by two, with said margin being established on a fortuitous putback with four seconds left, would be deemed satisfying to an Arkansas Razorback fan.
That said, the Hogs basketball team went nose to nose with an LSU team flecked with NBA potential, and played a nip-and-tuck one at the Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday night. Yes, Craig Victor's bucket decided the game in the Tigers' favor, 76-74, but even in defeat this Razorback team amply proved just how far it has come in short order.
One, the Hogs opened up a seven-point first half lead, then largely weathered the LSU storm after halftime, never trailing by more than five. On the one hand, it ended up being the eighth loss in 17 games for a squad that has gotten awfully accustomed to ending up on the short end. The other, longer view? Arkansas is one of the best 9-8 teams you'll ever see, pushing the Ben Simmons-led Tigers all the way to the end and nearly mustering an upset on Anton Beard's final 22-foot heave, which was on line but about a foot short.
The second substantial accomplishment was taking Simmons, the splashy Australian-born phenom, virtually out of the game for lengthy stretches. He ended up with 16 points and 18 rebounds. Those figures might suggest he was in his customary groove, but the visual evidence was different. The rangy freshman blocked no shots, committed five turnovers, and shot poorly, and even his prodigious rebounding wasn't enough to give his team an edge on the boards: The Hogs actually finished with a 40-37 edge on the glass, because four of its players went to the rack to corral at least five rebounds each.
Simmons and Victor, in fact, were arguably the only reason the Tigers stayed afloat at all, combining for 32 points and 30 rebounds. If anything, Josh Gray was the team's unsung star on this night, with the 6-1 transfer point guard accounting for 15 points and taking prudent shots.
Beard nearly answered Gray, scoring 11 off the pine and grabbing five boards, but he's still showing rust in his free throw stroke and his decision-making. Those are two components of his game that should improve as the sophomore rounds back into the form that made him a late-season hero last spring. There's a lot of Kareem Reid in Beard — from that funky southpaw push shot to the occasional maddening choices in traffic — but that augurs well for the next couple of seasons. Reid matured to such an extent that he became a steady on-court leader and contributor by the time his eligibility was exhausted.
Yet again, Moses Kingsley validated his standing as the most improved player in the conference with a balanced night at both ends. His 11 points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots stood out on this night because, in all of 33 minutes, he only missed four attempts from the floor and coughed the ball up once. For a guy who had no confidence with the ball for two solid years, the Nigerian-born project has the sudden swagger of a savvy longtime post scorer. Most of his buckets are at close range, but he's clearly adept with the midrange jumper, and now he's doing more defensively than just flailing away at shots in the paint.
It's strange to feel so invigorated by a team that is just a notch above .500 and has lost to the likes of Mercer, but there's a growing and obvious reflection of Mike Anderson's coaching really resonating with this crew. Kingsley, Anthlon Bell and Dusty Hannahs (who, admittedly, was off the mark in Baton Rouge) are putting up nearly 50 points per game, an unfathomable sort of happening, and they aren't doing it on sheer shooting volume. All three are comfortably over 45 percent from the floor, indicia of quality shot selection begetting the kind of output they've generated.
That's been facilitated thus far by Jabril Durham taking command of the point, which further liberates Beard to develop his offensive game. Depth, which looked to be a problem, is now an outright boon: All 10 Hogs who played in the loss scored, and even lesser contributors are still putting a stamp on the game.
Thursday night, Arkansas hosts Kentucky, and it's a potential catapult game for the program. If the Hogs can beat a Wildcat team that has had an uncommon struggle finding cohesiveness, then the 10-8, 4-2 record in the aftermath almost becomes an afterthought. The schedule ahead provides a fairly welcoming mix of matchups given the home/road analysis, and this is the sort of league where a dozen wins in conference play is likely to set the table for great positioning in the SEC tournament. The drawback, of course, is that Arkansas came into conference play with a pedestrian 6-6 mark, and thereby minimized its margin of error greatly.
For the Hogs to get into the postseason discussion, and we're not excluding an NIT berth as part of the overall calculus, pinning a loss on Kentucky in front of a huge home crowd before the weekend is basically a base-level requirement. Losing doesn't kill the whole season, but it does shift momentum in an undesirable way, one that likely can't be overcome.