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Up and down



Arkansas's hyper-frustrating basketball team sorely needed a week with two home games against lesser teams to get out of a potentially season-killing swoon. Dutifully, both South Carolina and Vanderbilt obliged, and permitted the Razorbacks to press back to a .500 SEC record with the Hogs rolling to by far their easiest two wins of calendar year 2018.

That is not to suggest that thumping the 'Cocks and slamming the 'Dores is a sufficient remedy for all that still very much ails the Hogs. Arkansas wasn't an overly efficient machine in either win, the first being a Tuesday night throttling of Frank Martin's mostly inexperienced team that has had to rebuild a bit after surging to the school's first Final Four last year. The Gamecocks outrebounded Arkansas and seemed to distribute the ball better, but they simply struggled to make baskets and the Hogs got a 49-point shot in the arm from senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. When those two have clicked to that extent, this has been a fun season at times, and Barford in particular seemed to regain a measure of confidence in his on-and-off three-point stroke, sinking a season-best five from beyond the arc.

The Hogs' defense in the second half was also brilliant and that carried over to the Vandy rout four nights later. After clamping down on Carolina's talented post, Chris Silva, holding him to a meager five shot attempts and eight total points in the first contest, the Hogs just plain smothered the scoring-deprived Commodores. Even as the Razorbacks scuffled their way to five turnovers in their first five possessions, they still clearly had a decisive advantage in talent and everything else.

No Vanderbilt player scored in double figures — senior gunners Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance each notched only eight points, and were harassed into a combined 1-for-11 from three-point range. Vandy has regressed quite a bit from its overachieving 2016-17 campaign, and Coach Bryce Drew watched fairly helplessly as his squad tossed up 15 bricks out of its final 16 attempts of the first half. Thanks to Arkansas being just barely more accurate in the first half, though, it was a seven-point game at halftime.

And this is why it is so damned difficult to get excited about a team with such a paucity of consistency. The first halves of games have generally been a mixed bag of extended lapses and impressive spurts, regardless of venue, and while there's some degree of this to be expected in most games, Arkansas has a fairly brutal back-end schedule that likely won't accommodate its worst tendencies.

Home games remaining on the slate include Kentucky and rematches against surprising Auburn and surging Texas A&M; the Hogs travel to Alabama and Missouri, after this week's Tuesday tilt at faltering Ole Miss. If the Razorbacks only split these six contests, then they'll be a rather staid 20-11, middling seed in the SEC tourney. That won't get them out of the dreaded bubble conversation because some of those impressive early wins have lost their shine, and nobody's going to be crowing about those two nasty losses to an NIT-at-best LSU squad.

This was the juncture of the 2016-17 season where the Hogs got right, and they've got such a strong nucleus of seniors that the precedent set by team should resonate. Daniel Gafford is a more naturally gifted offensive player than Moses Kingsley was, at least at this stage of his career, so he is the cliched "x factor" down the stretch. The freshman post has been a living, breathing highlight reel — his authoritative windmill dunk at the end of a fast break against Vanderbilt was arguably the best such play by a Hog in a few years — but he's also erratic at the line and too foul-prone to be genuinely dependable.

With that in mind, the likes of C.J. Jones and Darious Hall have to contribute more. When the Hogs have slumped this season, it's been because no one is there to pick up the slack if Barford or Macon is stumbling. And it isn't fair to expect those two to combine for 40-plus points every time they hit the court. Hall has had some nice moments in SEC play but the coaching staff seems unusually averse to extending his minutes; Jones has been too quick to panic and try to shoot his way into more meaningful minutes.

Twenty-plus games into a season seems awfully late to sort things out. But Mike Anderson's two NCAA tourney teams adopted this same maddening formula. It is a curious thing why these squads seem to only respond and play to their capabilities when the chips are down, but that script is playing out again, and we have to sit back, chew our nails and hope late-game, late-season good fortune continues.

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