The Southeastern Conference era of Arkansas athletics has represented something of an oddity in that historically, the two flagship programs cannot seem to be on steady footing simultaneously. Fortunately, at this moment, that means that the football woes of 2016 and 2017 (a sub-.500 record that torpedoed Bret Bielema's once-promising tenure and has ushered in Chad Morris) can take a momentary backseat to a basketball program that is truly and consistently resurgent for the first time in the post-Nolan Richardson era.
That is to say, things are exciting again and Bud Walton Arena doesn't resemble an echo chamber anymore. On Saturday, a Top 20 Tennessee team strolled in for the conference opener and for about 37 minutes the Volunteers threatened to yank the rug of optimism out from beneath the Razorbacks' speedy feet.
Ahead by nine with about three minutes and change to play, Tennessee seemingly had the Hogs buffaloed. The Vols had stroked the three-ball nicely, but most critically they had put the clamps on the Arkansas backcourt. Averaging 90 points per contest, Arkansas didn't crest the 60-point mark until less than five minutes remained, and it all looked like a hopeless affair because the Volunteers were extraordinarily resistant to the Hogs' signature runs.
Flash-forward about a half-hour, and Arkansas, naturally, had won the game 95-93 in overtime. And that three-headed senior guard combo of Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard? Well, all they did was throw in 71 points combined, with the former duo being responsible for career-high outputs of 33 (Macon) and 28 (Barford). Beard nailed a big three to trigger the Hogs' critical 12-2 run in regulation, then dropped home another in overtime to push the Razorbacks' lead to 11 before Rick Barnes' remarkable little orange engine mounted one last charge with 14 points over the final 40 seconds of overtime to make it close.
When it was all said and done, Arkansas finally had the pollsters convinced it belonged inside the Top 25, with a golden RPI, some terrific nonconference victories, and a sellout crowd urging it to an SEC-opening victory. That alone is a rather critical momentum-builder, as Mike Anderson had previously won only one of his six SEC openers as head coach on the Hill, and the Hogs have only won their conference opener a total of four times since Richardson was fired in 2002.
What that means, mind you, is that Razorback basketball is back, and this team has the feel of a contender that could be playing on the other side of the vernal equinox. Barford is having a singularly terrific season at both ends of the court, and he's drawing rave reviews outside the state's borders. Some pundits think he and Macon represent the best Razorback tandem since the inimitable Scotty Thurman-Corliss Williamson combo, and there's merit to it beyond the mere statistics: These transfers have already amassed a 37-12 record in a season and a half, and the mark is an even saltier 20-5 over the last 25 games, which includes two losses to North Carolina and another to Kentucky.
This backcourt is dynamic, and is a throwback to Anderson's days at Richardson's side in the late 1980s and early 1990s when junior college transfers like Lenzie Howell, Robert Shepherd and Corey Beck came along to provide leadership and fearlessness to the perimeter. This group has that now, and Anderson's vision for the rebuild of the program is very much in operation as a result.
How far the team may go could be dictated by the progress that Daniel Gafford continues to steadily make as the interior presence, the angular, raw Corliss for a new era. Gafford lacks Williamson's polish and bruiser mentality, but he and Bobby Portis represented the most pure interior talent since the Russellville All-American roamed the paint for back-to-back title game teams in 1994 and 1995. Portis in 2013-15 wasn't blessed with the support that Gafford has and, in fact, he was leaned upon too heavily in his two short years in Fayetteville. Conversely, Gafford is getting quality minutes and learning on the fly, but when he ends up in foul trouble, there's a measure of depth waiting to soak up some minutes and clog the paint while the scorers carry the load.