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Tough road



It's a perfectly acceptable belief, one which I harbor only passively, that Arkansas will find sustained, meaningful success hard to come by as long as it resides in the Southeastern Conference.

We've had a quarter-century-plus to digest it all, and the various digits and metrics simply do not reek of deceit. The basketball team won a national title and went to the championship game the next season, within the first few years of the program being in the conference, but has substantially regressed in the two decades since. Our precious and treasured football team finally made it to a single BCS game during that bygone era (losing it in gut-wrenching fashion, natch) and has gotten steamrolled thrice in the SEC Championship Game while winning only lower-tier bowl games. The baseball team's got a sweet ledger to lean on, what with Dave Van Horn averaging a trip to Omaha every three seasons and also taking the team to the brink of the national title round twice (2009 and 2012), but of course a fellow SEC team knocked the Hogs out of the field both times they advanced that far.

It is a rough, rough league, in all sports. Let's not pretend that those alleged down years of late in men's basketball really meant much, either — Kentucky was still a nationally elite, if inarguably reprehensible, program, and nontraditional comers like South Carolina and Texas A&M had tastes of deep postseason success in that purported low-water mark for the SEC. In fact, here's a jarring stat: Arkansas, Mississippi State and Georgia all made it as far as the Sweet 16 in 1996; since that time, the other 11 member institutions have all reached that round of the tournament (Missouri last did it as a Big 12 member), and that leaves the aforementioned trio in a three-way tie for the longest drought since getting to the regional semifinals in the tournament. And there's no question that Arkansas would identify itself as the "basketball school" among that trio, right?

Mike Anderson was a proper, if sentimental, selection to take over after John Pelphrey left the program in a general state of ruin in 2011. He had the pedigree, the C.V., the love of the state, all of it — and he's just concluded his seventh season with this weird distinction of winning 64 percent of his games without really getting many Ws of consequence. After an ugly finish to a once-promising year, it's going to take a staff overhaul to convince me that Anderson has the chops and the gumption to take this program to heights that really aren't all that unreasonable to expect.

The baseball program just had one of its fine swats of reality, too. Van Horn stacked up the nonconference schedule and the Hogs took a few losses, but started SEC play as beautifully as you possibly could, sweeping fourth-ranked Kentucky and outscoring the Wildcats 39-15 over the span of barely over 24 hours. The Hogs promptly delivered an opening-game win against second-ranked Florida to move to 4-0 in league play and have the fans itching for at least a series victory, if not another sweep, and a possible claim to the top spot in the collegiate baseball polls.

That all went by the wayside Saturday when Hogs starting hurler Isaiah Campbell was ineffective early, and the Gators' healthy offense led by Jonathan India, Wil Dalton, and Deacon Liput got untracked big-time. The Gators mashed Campbell and three relievers to the tune of a 12-0 lead over the first three innings, and Florida coasted to a 17-2 win that felt like fine retribution for a Gators team that got swallowed whole by the Hogs in a 16-0 SEC Tournament rout last May. But Van Horn, steady as he is, knew that all that output on Saturday only meant that the Hogs still had a shot to win the series Sunday, and he shook up the lineup by starting left-handed sticks Evan Lee and Jared Gates, both of whom made the decision pay off with back-to-back solo homers early to stake Arkansas to a 2-1 lead.

What happened from there, sadly, is that Arkansas got that ol' Arkansas feeling back: The Hogs put men on base in each of the last four innings and plated only a single tally late. The clutch hitting that was evident a week earlier was absent at the most inopportune time: despite outhitting the Gators 10-5, the Hogs left 12 men on base compared to a paltry four for Florida, and that kind of production disparity more or less decides one-run games. Florida's salty junior closer, Michael Byrne, went overtime to get the win with 3 2/3 innings of work. The 5-4 loss was deflating, but certainly not damaging long-term ... unless you look at the schedule ahead.

The Hogs don't get a break. They'll take on another Top 5 program, Ole Miss, on the road, and then draw Top 15 Auburn at home after that. Another 4-2 stretch through those two series would be admirable, to say the least, but of course it still might not satisfy those pollsters who remain convinced that any prize Arkansas finds in any sport is fool's gold. And can you blame them? The basketball team got ranked after beating Tennessee, and promptly lost three straight to never sniff the possibility of being ranked again, while in recent years, the baseball team has not handled the pressure associated with high rankings or expectations well. And while Bret Bielema's football teams barely made a dent in the polls, you'll undoubtedly recall that the team was ranked in early 2015 before losing to Toledo and Texas Tech, then sabotaged an unthinkable return to the Top 25 later by losing a heartbreaking shootout against Mississippi State. In 2016, the Razorbacks surfaced again in the polls after a 3-0 start, but committed their now-ritual gagging in the Southwest Classic against Texas A&M, got bombed by Alabama at home, and never made another peep about lacking respect thereafter.

This isn't designed to condemn the Razorback program to decades upon decades of futility, but the Southeastern Conference does not, in any way, take mercy on this program. Officiating decisions have long been a source of consternation in every sport, and every major revenue-producing sport is banking more dollars, reeling in more attendees, and sitting in better position for recruiting hauls. We move onward into baseball season hoping that Van Horn is due to take another squad to Omaha, and with hopes that Chad Morris can build that something special that eluded his football coaching predecessors, and thinking that maybe Daniel Gafford's announced return for his sophomore season will provide momentum for Anderson to finally get his basketball program into rarefied air again.

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