Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
So long as we've still got our sanity after two rip-roaring fun months of nonstop losing on the football field, let's concentrate on another Razorback program that has set off on the right foot at 3-0, but has a far better prognosis ahead for more short- and long-term prosperity.
Mike Anderson's third Arkansas team strikes you as the kind that has, for the first time, the personnel he wants on the court most of the time. He's just about put the lingering vestiges of the Pelphrey era in the past, and his 2013-14 roster on first blush seems fully cleansed of players who didn't mesh or make the necessary progression (Hunter Mickelson, namely, not to pick on anyone per se) to adapt to the tenacious, breathless style Anderson has long championed.
This squad has a poor man's Kentucky type of feel, which may seem laughable given how disparate that program has become from Arkansas as one spit-polished coach runs a rapid-fire NBA training ground and the other presses forward with a familiar brand of high-pressure, balls-to-the-wall defense that hasn't yielded appreciable results in some time. But there's that bluegrass-style roster makeup: a couple of touted young interior players with massive pro potential, a couple of long and athletic guards who simply are too raw to be dependable at this point, and a couple of cagey veteran players who aren't of the archetype professional dimensions but still have a versatile and rounded game. There ironically is a Calipari kind of imprint on this squad, even if that degree of success may escape this crew.
Alandise Harris is one of those last mentioned guys, the would-be Alonzo Lane for a new generation, an undersized power forward who can also flash competent outside range and rebound with abandon. The other one, Coty Clarke, is as hard to peg now as he was last year: he'll be a dynamic and slashing scorer one night, then a defensive stopper the next. Clarke is a quintessential role player, a guy who Anderson could probably ask for 20 points on a given night and get that output, then tell the next to post a goose egg and worry about assists and steals. Clarke seems like the ultimate Anderson player, a do-anything sort that toils in any spot on the court at any juncture. If you don't like how erratic these Hogs are from the perimeter — and yeah, it's gonna be a dicey situation in that regard again this season — at least admire the grit that these guys sport. Under Heath and Pelphrey, the leadership of front court players often came under criticism, and you can't assume that will be an issue with these players at the forefront.
The team's postseason meter may hinge even more on the advancement of Mike Qualls, an eye-popping athlete who now seems molded well into a slashing two-guard. A sophomore who last year looked like all limbs and no finesse now seems like the guy who harnesses his potential in the offseason and transforms his game in a rapid way. That happened with guys like Nick Davis and Sonny Weems before, and Qualls arguably has more gifts than either of those. He's going to keep making SportsCenter highlight reels with his angular and fiery attacks on the rim, but this season he's likely to add the more mundane stuff to his arsenal: soft jumpers, swift dishes to cutting penetrators, and high-flying rebounds over smaller guys.
With Qualls' advancement must come similar flourishing confidence from Anthlon Bell. He was all over the map last year, but started gaining footing as the conference season wound down. Bell's an unabashed gunner and can be impossibly streaky, but his swagger is something worth having on a team that has been bereft of perimeter scoring for far too long. The more games Bell plays, the more settled he appears in the framework of the Anderson offense. It's a meaningful thing to have a guy visibly earning floor time for seeing everything around him essentially stay static, and taking flight above it. Bell flashed that last year and seems ready to encore it in 2013-14.
The Hogs' three wins came against indisputably lesser competition — something called Edwardsvilletown and then Larry Brown's half-fighting Mustangs of Methodist U.-Dallas — but they were important ones, as they all are. The traps are out early in basketball season for even the biggest programs (UNC, meet Belmont) so if Arkansas keeps mowing down its non-conference schedule then it sets itself up for progress come January. We've been fooled in this regard before but there's something a little snappier about this team that might make them more intriguing than they've been in years past. Given the negative trajectory of baseball and football before it, basketball has an opportunity to recapture the Hog fan's heart for a while.
Building a lead so rapidly and holding it in games, even professional football, is difficult…