Let's just lay it out there at the start: this isn't Mike Anderson's fault.
The halcyon days of Arkansas basketball are so far behind us now that the discussion has morphed completely. We no longer wonder when Nolan Richardson's trusted consigliere will have the team back on a pedestal, but instead we muse about all the things that the championship teams did well and just sigh. For crying out loud, the 1994 national championship team had a doughy 6'9" guy who was a better three-point shooter than anybody on this team!
Anderson's middling results so far — 29 wins, 20 losses, and no real signature moments to date — are a testament not to his inability to coach, but rather an indictment of John Pelphrey's nose for talent. Make no mistake, when Pelphrey got the team its first NCAA tournament victory in a decade and started wearing red jackets and playing with the team in practice, it had the feel of being the right hire. The man's pedigree as a hard-nosed overachiever with basketball in his blood made him seem so appealing.
But we are still seeing how badly Pelphrey mismanaged the program over a four-year period. Anderson is overseeing what appears to be a more disciplined squad, on and off the court, but the recruiting misfires are substantial. This isn't a space where picking on individual athletes should occur, but anyone who watched the Hogs struggle to put away another flaccid Auburn team in a double-overtime mid-week tilt knows where the weaknesses lie. This isn't meant to impeach Pelphrey or his staff's judgment on every single signee, because there is talent on this squad, but Anderson's reconstruction has to be more thorough than previously thought.
Arkansas is in the midst of a dreadful and inexplicable stretch where something so seemingly mundane as beating Ole Miss has become a chore. Since 1996-97, the Razorbacks are 9-24 against the Rebels, and they haven't won at the colloquially named "Tad Pad," more commonly described as the Division I arena most fit for condemnation, since Pelphrey's woeful 2009-10 crew eked out a victory there. Take note that Ole Miss has not been a terribly accomplished team during this stretch: Andy Kennedy, now in his seventh season, still hasn't guided the Rebels into the NCAA tournament. At this point, though, Razorback fans would be comforted to have an NIT-bound team — as has long been the argument about the virtues of even lesser football bowls, the extra practice time even for modest reward is worth it.
What remains so puzzling about the Anderson experience thus far is how uncomfortable the Hogs seem to get when they seem to seize control of a game. Against Auburn, Arkansas assembled a masterful first-half run that flipped a 12-6 deficit into a 25-14 lead almost in an instant. Even during the leaner final years of Richardson's long tenure, this was still the sort of game-altering run that used to generate a thrill as the Hogs coasted to a blowout.
Auburn basically has adopted the same template of every bad but bothersome team that has populated the SEC, and thereby given the Hogs fits, for years. The Tigers have a bunch of nondescript supporting players, one bulky and profoundly graceless enforcer in the paint (in this case, the fittingly named Rob Chubb) and a high-level scorer that, as fate would have it, gets way too many unchallenged opportunities at all the worst possible times. That guy, Frankie Sullivan, poured in 26 on Wednesday, which gave him his seventh career double-digit scoring effort against the Hogs. Ole Miss is more well-rounded than that, so when the Rebels ceded all of a 13-point second-half lead, it was no great shakes for Kennedy to calmly reconnoiter and send his guys back onto the floor for the final minutes and stretch the lead right back to 13 in short order. The Hogs lost 76-64 and never threatened to close in the final five minutes because, once again, nobody other than B.J. Young or Marshawn Powell seemed all that interested in putting up a fierce attack.
From a pure talent standpoint, nary a gulf exists between Arkansas and Ole Miss. There is a subtle but important disparity in team cohesion, though. Ole Miss was utterly unfazed by the Hogs' second-half burst and its composure was built upon a commitment to finding sharpshooter Marshall Henderson even though he had been way off the mark for the first 30-plus minutes. Arkansas, given the chance to exchange blows till the end, simply looked lost and confused, a dark harbinger for the last two months.