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Call it "Mississippi Burned." Arkansas took a spin through the Magnolia State, and it ended up being one of the harshest road trips in recent memory, even for a basketball team that's had its share of struggles abroad.
You see, the Razorbacks had followed a walloping by Texas A&M in the conference opener with a pretty decent slew of efforts away from Bud Walton Arena. Yes, there was only one win to speak of, a thrashing of hapless Missouri, but the other losses to Georgia, Florida and LSU had a combined nine-point margin. In other words, these mercurial Hogs had basically been a tough out even if they hadn't developed a closer's mentality.
A couple of irregularities, though, caused problems. They had to play Mississippi State on a Tuesday night, which meant an earlier travel date than they'd experienced of late. And while that's no excuse for the pathetic shooting display that occurred in Starkville — 16 for 72 sounds more like a baseball prospect's performance at the plate in a September call-up than a college team's field goal effort — it seemed like the team simply could not get its bearings.
The second unusual development was that the trio of Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley and Anthlon Bell had a collective off night for the first time. None of them cracked double digits, and in a year when any one of them has put up 18 points or more on a given night to help carry the load, on this occasion that was the total point output all three compiled. Kingsley was taken out of the game early by the Bulldogs' feisty inside players, and Bell and Hannahs were simply far off target in a 32-point loss.
Of course, MSU's season-long frustrations at both ends of the floor didn't materialize, either. The Dogs jumped out to a double-digit lead within minutes, stretched it to 22 by halftime, and put any notion of the Razorbacks whittling away on ice right out of the locker room by expanding it to 30 quickly. This was a drubbing, pure and simple, one of those Murphy's Law nights that you hope as a player and coach you can afford to forget or overcome with something better along the way.
Arkansas had the benefit of four days to prep with its only date with Ole Miss all year, and started out just fine in Oxford on Saturday, with a clear focus on stifling the conference's top gunner. Stefan Moody was punchless over the first 20 minutes for the Rebels, but that good fortune was mostly offset by the fact that Hannahs got tagged with early fouls and ended up with his only scoreless game of the season. Kingsley was brilliant in the opening half, compiling 15 points on 7 of 8 shooting, but this was another of those games where it felt like the Hogs simply whiffed on their best opportunities.
Specifically, up by varying amounts throughout the half, as much as 11, the Hogs seemed completely unwilling or unable to make that lead balloon further. It's been a chronic issue for an undermanned but feisty group all year: There's no quit in them on one hand, but also not a great deal of decisiveness. Mike Anderson compounds the problem from time to time with strange substitution patterns and an ongoing, bizarre disinterest in engaging the officials when the calls start skewing toward the host.
The Rebels trailed by nine, 26-17, at the under-eight television timeout; what followed was a 16-4 run denoted by some disparate treatment from the referees and Ole Miss' players sensing that their 24-point scorer was off his game. From there, Moody played an admirable game of catch-up. He got 16 of his 17 points after halftime despite having a woeful perimeter shooting game, and the Hogs had their third hideous offensive half out of four in the neighboring state. Getting worked over on the glass, failing to take full advantage of the other team's star having an off night, and having no help from the complementary players — this theme played out again over the last 20 minutes at the new Pavilion, and Ole Miss looked like the team that wanted to put together the late-season surge back to postseason consideration.
It was a forgettable week, yes, but it was likely also the one that revealed exactly what Anderson is going to have to address with expediency once the campaign finally ends at some point in March. This team tethered its fate to three players who weren't totally proven offensive commodities at the high D-I level. Bell's shot has betrayed him lately, Hannahs has lost his ability to impact a game on floaters and free throws as he had earlier, and Kingsley is slowing a little after an unforeseen display of improvement through the first 20 games or so. That wouldn't be so bad, but Jimmy Whitt has been a mild disappointment, Jabril Durham and Anton Beard struggle mightily when asked to prop the rest of the squad up, and Trey Thompson, Willy Kouassi, and Keaton Miles just don't give the team anything at the offensive end.
Thus, with six regular season games left, a 12-13, 5-7 team sits basically on the precipice of having it all end a little sooner than might have been anticipated after a reasonably good start to SEC play. The 2015-16 Hogs can still leave a mark, but for 80 minutes of basketball in a neighboring state in early February, they looked every bit like the also-ran that most pundits thought would take the court.
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