You can hardly characterize an unsteady six-point win over a .500 team as a season saver, but when Arkansas dutifully clawed its way out of a 17-point first-half hole against Auburn over the weekend, it was sufficiently cathartic nonetheless.
Almost a full year had elapsed since the Hogs last won a game outside of Washington County, after all. The Tigers may be the league's resident doormat over the past few seasons, and Arkansas's pedestrian accomplishment may have no bearing on whether this team nudges its way into the NIT, but a road win for this program is special and profoundly meaningful, and not simply because of the way this basketball campaign has unfolded.
Stan Heath was 82-71 in five seasons at Arkansas but his undoing was a 7-33 showing in conference road games. John Pelphrey's four-year mark in such contests was 6-26. The Razorbacks have not had a winning conference road record since 1994-95, the season that culminated with the latter of the national championship game appearances and, quite frankly, represented the last genuine moment of Arkansas's fleeting run as a national titan.
Mike Anderson will have a four- or five-season run, at most, if he cannot do better than one or two road victories per year. If you bother to sniff any of the sour grapes that jilted Missouri fans have stomped on the Internet the past year or so, you will notice a recurring theme: they complain ad nauseam about Anderson's road failures there, too.
Arkansas fans would not complain, however, if Anderson's career trajectory here mirrors that of his stint in Columbia, regardless of whether the road issues were prevalent. His predecessor at Missouri was Quin Snyder, who much like Pelphrey was beloved in his playing days for one of the nation's blue bloods (Snyder at Duke, Pelphrey at Kentucky). Both Snyder and Pelphrey effused passion for and knowledge of the game, and both prospered briefly on the rather big stages on which they had been placed. Snyder took the Tigers to four straight NCAA tourneys at the start of his tenure, and Pelphrey's first Hog team earned the program's first NCAA tournament win in a decade when it defeated Indiana in 2008.
For Snyder, NCAA violations and rumors of personal indiscretions dogged his last couple of seasons and he was ultimately forced to resign toward the end of the 2005-06 season. Pelphrey's teams became notorious for disciplinary issues and rampant suspensions, and by the time he was fired last March, the disarray rivaled what Snyder had abandoned five years prior.
Anderson's first Mizzou team ended up 18-12; at the time of this writing, his first Arkansas team is 18-11. His third season in Columbia was, without dispute, the best the program had ever experienced, a 31-win year that ended on the doorstep of the Final Four. He wrapped up his five-year term with back-to-back 23-win seasons, and both of those squads made the NCAA tourney field. The Missouri team he left behind is likely headed for a No. 2 or 3 seed in this year's field, appearing poised for a deep run in the tournament behind senior leaders like Marcus Denmon and Kim English.
Would we fans tolerate that manner of success here? I should hope so. Embracing a hypothetical where Anderson follows this transitional year by averaging 23 wins per season and authoring a couple of respectable NCAA tournament showings would evoke memories of his mentor's achievements here, but more importantly, would purge the fan base of years of accrued bile and disengagement. Even in this season of frustration and attrition, Anderson has managed unthinkable progress in the morale department.
And that was reflected on the court at Auburn. The Hogs fell in another large hole within minutes of tipoff, but when quarterback-cum-undersized-power-forward Brandon Mitchell entered, the team sparkled and refocused. Mitchell had a fine game in his own right with 10 points and six rebounds before fouling out, but it was his on-court demeanor, his coach-in-hightops mentality that shined more. Life was breathed into Rickey Scott and he responded with his best game ever, 22 points and six rebounds after amassing only 18 points in the previous five games combined. A team that had been worn down by its opponents and itself started to surge again, to chase down loose balls and demonstrate movement offensively.
This season isn't likely to be remembered for much when it all wraps up at some undetermined point in March. But maybe it should be. When viewed in the context of recent history, and through the prism of Anderson's career ledger to date, it has been an unqualified success. And that's a rather daunting statement given the team's struggles away from home and its unexceptional overall record.