Since Arkansas essentially peaked as a national basketball brand in the mid-1990s, the program's stumble down to the second or third tier of national relevance has been well documented. Nolan Richardson compiled four 30-win seasons over a six-year stretch and had the team in three total Final Fours and five Sweet 16s in that stretch, to say nothing of the back-to-back title game berths, including the 1994 national championship, that they earned as well. Yes, we are far past the time for which these exalted moments of Hog history have much modern-day relevance, but as Arkansas trudges into the 2017-18 NCAA Tournament, it's the program's seeding that should be disturbing more than anything else.
Mike Anderson has just sent his third team to the dance, and you can easily argue that the star power Bobby Portis brought to the table in 2014-15, along with a healthy 26 wins in the regular season, is what vaulted the Hogs to a No. 5 seed. Since the conclusion of the 1994-95 season, that represents a tie for the best national seed the program has earned for the tourney, and not coincidentally, Arkansas bolted right back out of the tournament before the first weekend was finished, losing to North Carolina. The Hogs, seeded eighth, memorably duplicated that feat by fighting their porcine asses off in a loss to the same Tar Heels, this time a No. 1 seed, on the final day of opening weekend last year.
John Pelphrey's only tournament team was a No. 8 seed that gagged away a potential SEC Tournament title by losing to the darlings of Athens in 2008 when a tornado in Atlanta threatened to end the whole show early, and that group also lost to Carolina in the second round, by more than 30 points. Stan Heath's last two squads made it to the tourney and promptly lost in the opening round as lower-seeded bunches.
It's that inability to make much of a postseason ripple that has caused these bracketologists — you know, the guys who filled the old blank Monday newspaper one in their community college algebra classes — to discern that Arkansas isn't going to deserve a better seed until it proves it can carry its way through a regular season and conference tournament without a jarring stumble. The Hogs won 23 games this year and beat five ranked teams; they also lost by double digits at home to a pitiful LSU team and a Kentucky team not far removed from a four-game losing skid, in addition to getting bombed in nonconference play by Houston and UNC. Their SEC Tournament performance was a fine one overall, with a narrow, sluggish victory over last year's darlings from South Carolina and then a commanding second-half effort to stop a long skid against Florida, but they ran out of gas Saturday against a scalding Tennessee team that clearly had a level of energy that the Razorbacks did not.
Arkansas, therefore, is a 7 seed. One might describe this as either fitting, a tad low or a tad high, and all descriptors would likely be correct. The Hogs look like they might be one of the country's top 25 to 30 teams generally, but the deficiencies that crop up from time to time are clear evidence that foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of these little Pigs. From night to night, you never know if that salty defense and crisp ball movement is going to be there, or if you'll see the disarray that has plagued them in just about every single one of their 11 losses thus far.
Nevertheless, the NCAA Tournament offers, yet again, an opportunity at renewal and recapturing that lost legacy. We've been lightly critical of Mike Anderson for not delivering a really signature moment over seven years here, and though his job is safe regardless, another first-weekend bowing-out for the Hogs will assuredly give rise to more gripes. This is a senior-laden team, a complete anomaly in today's game, and yet there have been segments of the season where the team has been suspiciously bereft of leadership and direction. There's good depth, competent perimeter shooting and commendable ball security, even if the rebounding effort continues to wax and wane.
Butler is no slouch for an opening game, either. Hearkening to the Hogs' lack of NCAA Tournament success, how's this strike you? The little school that plays its games on the "Hoosiers" set just happens to have 21 tourney wins under its belt since the turn of the century; Arkansas has all of three. Tradition is strong for the Bulldogs, and that's why you can expect their fans to flock to Detroit for this Friday afternoon tilt, whereas Arkansas fans will smirk derisively about the crime and punishment factor, and likely decline the chance to see the Motor City's many attractions, even the boyhood home of Ted Nugent. And ironically, a good showing by Hog fans might fuel the program to the necessary two wins over Indiana-based schools (No. 2 seed Purdue would likely loom next) needed to end a long Sweet 16 drought and propel the Hogs to a second weekend in a more accessible metropolis.
But it all begins by trying to knock off a team that has a strong recent March pedigree, and Arkansas has not been able to overcome that in prior trips. The Hogs beat Indiana in 2008, but the Hoosiers were absolutely wracked with controversy and coached by an interim, Dan Dakich, thanks to Kelvin Sampson's documented misdeeds weeks beforehand. They beat a scrappy Wofford team in 2015 and put away Seton Hall last spring. If the Hogs are going to turn to a new chapter here, then it will be on the strength of vanquishing a couple of tradition-rich schools from the heartland first, and then they can author a new legacy and era for the program all at once.