Jack Pearadin and Doug Nelsen found a 1.73-carat diamond after nearly a year of searching the park's field.
The Arkansas Razorbacks' 31 games of basketball in 2015-16 have paralleled, appropriately enough, Baskin-Robbins' 31 flavors. Just about every tasty one is offset by a nasty one, and the last two samples of the regular season were a pretty fair representation of the duality.
The Hogs had put up a modest three-game winning streak and headed to Alabama with very few people realistically believing they had a shot at knocking off the Crimson Tide, which had surged under Avery Johnson's coaching and Retin Obasohan's floor leadership to the periphery of NCAA Tournament consideration. Arkansas did its part to wreck that, just as it had done the week before in a thrashing of LSU's talented but rudderless bubble team.
The 62-61 win at Coleman Coliseum was anything but aesthetically pleasing. Moses Kingsley's 19 points led the way, and most importantly, the Hogs finally showed some gumption on the glass with a 36-30 rebounding edge. In addition, the Hogs didn't seem too fazed by the conventionally home-cooked officiating, making the most of their free throw tries while Bama struggled at the stripe. Anthlon Bell's two free throws with four seconds remaining iced it, and made the last three of Obasohan's 32 points on a buzzer-beater harmless in the process.
As has been the case all season, the Hogs' triumph was built on a rather atypical foundation. In keeping with the bipolar tradition of the season, it was also followed by a bizarre clunker.
South Carolina has been the unquestioned surprise of the conference all year, finally turning the corner under the guidance of the menacing but effective Frank Martin, and yet it entered Bud Walton Arena with a paucity of quality wins among its 23 thus far. And Michael Carrera, the team's heart-and-soul senior swingman who evolved from role player to All-SEC catalyst, was sidelined with a bum hip. With the Hogs streaking and the Gamecocks floundering after a couple of bad losses, obviously the stage would be set for Arkansas to finish a ragged slate in style.
Naturally, nastily, no. Carolina blistered its way to a large first-half lead, and stretched it as far as 27 points in the second half. Bud Walton rarely has felt so cavernous in March, even when the stakes were low. The Hogs got feisty around the 10-minute mark and demonstrated the same won't-quit panache that's gotten them in and out of binds all year. Dusty Hannahs popped a couple of treys, the lead shrunk to nine, and what remained of the crowd got lathered up.
Kingsley, though, had a horrific day at the line (3 for 10) and all the misses were ill-timed. And the bench went back to being punchless after several productive games. Jabril Durham's only basket of the game made it 70-61 with just under four minutes left, but the Gamecocks snuffed out the Hogs from there and ended up winning by 15. In many ways, it mirrored the Kentucky loss, not just in margin, but in the sense that even the best efforts of the Hogs' unlikely Big Three of Bell, Kingsley and Hannahs in the second half couldn't outpace a much deeper squad on the other side.
Sixteen up, 15 down. Pretty in victory, ugly in defeat, and sometimes completely operating in contradiction to convention. This column has been used as a sounding board for criticisms of Mike Anderson to extensive extent this year, yet it may be among the better coaching jobs he's authored, even if the shortfall of talent also falls at his feet. Oddly enough, for the most part, it's been a fun team to watch in spite of its glaring shortcomings, because as it demonstrated in the final 10 minutes of the South Carolina debacle, no deficit is too big to knock this bunch off its heels. No lead can be deemed secure, either.
The Hogs did well enough on this rickety ride to get the single-bye and draw a matchup with Florida in the SEC Tournament opener. Like many of the middling teams in the conference, Florida is capable of being transcendent one night and terrible the next. Arkansas knows and embodies that same inconsistency, but has a slightly narrower margin of error when it comes to securing a postseason invitation. Anderson therefore steers his fifth Hog team into the fray having no real idea if the contender will emerge, or if it used all of its fuel just to get to .500.