Had the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team not gone on this latest three-game roll through the powerhouse trio of Florida, Alabama and Tennessee (especially the 10th-ranked Vols, on the road), can you imagine what the local attitude about basketball this week might be?
Going into the Southeastern Conference Women’s Tournament at Alltel Arena, Susie Gardner’s Lady ’Backs have dropped eight in a row. Losing the team’s best player in preseason to injury hurt, but anyone could see this coming two years ago, when Gardner, in her new job in Fayetteville after coming from Austin Peay College, was doing a pretty pitiful job of recruiting for a team competing in the toughest women’s basketball league in the country.
There’s never been a really good reason given why the UA women parted ways in 2003 with Gary Blair, a coach with a winning record who was also doing what UA Chancellor John White apparently deemed so important during his and Frank Broyles’ ill-handling of Nolan Richardson’s final days: graduating players. Blair wasn’t beating LSU or Tennessee, mind you, but he was winning regularly nonetheless, not bringing up the rear of the SEC, and was still putting diplomas in players’ hands. So, where was Blair falling short? He’s since gone down to Texas A&M and turned around that moribund program, where they barely care.
Now, we’re going to see how many really care about UA women’s basketball.
Many still feel strongly about the men’s side, but until Heath’s latest success, interest among the masses seemed to be waning, and after four years Heath still didn’t seem to have a way to get Arkansas over the hump. All anyone could say this year was that the Hogs were losing better.
Now, Heath’s Hogs have turned a corner, and still you’ll see message board comments from the fan-experts who don’t like the product they’re seeing on the court. Oh well. Arkansas’s going to have to take this week and next off to avoid being picked for the NCAA Tournament now.
Two weeks ago, though, you would have gotten a unanimous “aye” from everyone who follows Arkansas athletics: Please keep the chancellor uninvolved in the coaching hirings from now on. And somebody tell UA women’s athletic director Bev Lewis that while Frank Broyles perfected the hiring-’em-cheap method, she still needs to hire folks who will attack the job with recruiting enthusiasm, not to mention coaching excellence, from day one. And in the SEC, as even Broyles and his right hand Jim Lindsey are learning from recent fan discontent, you need to spend a little bit more than usual on your coaches to win. Also, next time, don’t ask a conference rival (Tennessee’s Pat Summitt) for a coaching recommendation.
Gardner, who failed to sign the three best players in Arkansas last year, seems to have finally gotten this recruiting thing down lately, and even has some good commitments set for 2007. Since they chose to break apart the program that was built first by John Sutherland and then Gary Blair, Lewis and White need to be patient now with Gardner.
As for the rest of the major college basketball around here, somewhere about the time Arkansas State came down to Jack Stephens Center and blew out UALR in the second half the Trojans suddenly lost whatever edge they’d had and finished the regular season on a downer almost as bad as the Lady ’Backs’. The one positive of missing so many shots this year was that UALR knew how to rebound from the start, and Reshad Jones-Jennings was among the best in the country. He’ll be back next year, and UALR will be better. Coach Steve Shields got this group to play well above its ability for several weeks, but it seemed to dawn on them after that ASU loss that they weren’t very good.
Dickey Nutt, who took a pay cut last March to keep his job in Jonesboro, mostly managed to get his undersized Indians to compete well. But the best part of their season was beating UALR twice, letting them finish just ahead of the Trojans in their Sun Belt division. This is one year that neither team has to wonder whether it will again be snubbed by the NIT selection committee. Their postseason will last a couple of days in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for the Sun Belt Tournament.
Enjoy some basketball this week; Sunday’s 5 p.m. SEC women’s final ought to draw a big crowd, not only of fans from out of town, but locals who like to believe Little Rock is a sports town. A $10 ticket for good basketball is hard to beat, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of good basketball in these parts this year.
And if you’re not running in the Marathon on Sunday, get out on some street corner and root along the runners. The intersection of Kavanaugh and Hillcrest, where the runners reach the last peak before heading downhill, is always a fun place to linger.