Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
In the final summation, and after the Arkansas Razorbacks finished their 2015-16 campaign Thursday with another nip-and-tuck loss to Florida to bow quickly out of the SEC tournament, I made this observation by way of the so-called "Facebooks": "They were every bit of 16-16, 9-9. Average. Good at home for the most part, but mistake-prone even there. Feisty on the road, but unable to finish."
And as I posted that, I felt secure enough in it to carry it forward to print. That's the grand summation here, with an undercurrent of disdain, frankly, for the fact that even in being .500, Arkansas couldn't just do it by beating bad teams and losing to better ones. Instead, there had to be teasers all year, both toward unexpected excellence and embarrassing pitfalls.
The Hogs doomed themselves, to be quite fair, with a wretched nonconference effort. Six losses, only one against an NCAA Tournament qualifier (Dayton), and nothing distinguished about the six victories that preceded SEC play. In prior years, Arkansas could have survived a .500 showing in league games by simply winning 10 or 11 against out-of-conference foes. Even beating Texas Tech later in the year to secure one of only three SEC wins in the 10-game challenge with the Big 12 didn't carry much cause for hoopla.
Had Arkansas been able to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat against the likes of Stanford, Mercer, Wake Forest and Dayton, two benefits would have been extracted: The first is that the team would've launched into SEC play with a 10-2 record, and would've ended up hitting the 20-win mark in all likelihood, which would have at the very least placed it in the NIT field. The second, more critical development would have been a knack for closing out tight ones, instead of the inverse trend that developed, and it might've even been parlayed into some additional SEC victories, namely against the likes of Georgia and Florida on the road, or Auburn at home.
Eight losses by four or fewer points all season, that was the drumbeat that got sounded early and then often when the Hogs scuffled in tight games. Even when the Razorbacks basically no-showed in Mississippi, losing to the two schools there by a combined 49 points, and then wasted plum chances at Bud Walton to notch meaningful wins against Kentucky and South Carolina, the mesmerizing and maddening propensity to falter in the final minutes was the signature of the season.
It also bedeviled LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss, too. Those teams at various junctures looked like they could sit on, or squeeze through, the proverbial bubble. All ended up on the outside, with only Vanderbilt getting a nod behind Texas A&M and Kentucky, and the Commodores were among the last four in and have to wrestle with a play-in game this week, too.
Arkansas, it stands to reason, should be better than all of those programs when the adages about ice-water veins and steely nerves are invoked. The Tide and the Gators had new coaches. LSU had a complete dearth of chemistry, chargeable to Prof. Johnny Jones, who had no sense of how to govern the nation's premier talent. Gamecocks, Rebels, Bulldogs ... all decent enough teams, but in terms of style and leadership, arguably lacking compared with the Hogs, or what the Hogs should be.
The season is over because Mike Anderson was infatuated with playing the thoroughly ineffectual Keaton Miles when Trey Thompson would have benefited more from the court time. Or because he would at varying points late in the year have all three of his proven scorers resting simultaneously. Or because he would grimace and place his hands on his hips, when he should've been woofing and pointing at officials who continue to denigrate the conference at large by officiating so wretchedly as to create murmurs in Vegas rather than credibility in Birmingham.
An alleged nucleus of Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs and unproven junior college talent seem poised to take the floor come autumn 2016. And for Anderson's sake, that group has no choice but to deliver a return bid to the NCAA Tournament at a bare minimum. Short of that, we'll be discussing a job search in this spot in 12 months.