Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
The reason college basketball fights desperately to recapture its erstwhile appeal, despite some excellent games in this NCAA tournament and those before it, is multifold. What happened to the Razorbacks' roster, for instance, is a tacit illustration of many issues coalescing in one hotspot.
Michael Qualls was, for the last two seasons, one of the most electrifying players in the region, if not the country. His dunks were prodigious, forceful and in the case of the buzzer-beating and vicious throw he used to beat Kentucky in 2014, utterly memorable and impactful. What might've been lost to some is how rapidly the onetime sleeper recruit developed his whole game against that backdrop. After a nondescript but encouraging freshman campaign, he steadily improved his perimeter shot and tuned his defensive aggression properly. Still unsteady as a ball-handler and a bit prone to erratic play, he didn't take the chance on losing his senior season to injury or sloppy play, and now he's got a fair shot at being an early second-round pick or, with the right touch at the predraft camps, sneaking into the back end of the first round of the NBA draft in June.
Of course, Qualls and fellow Hog Bobby Portis don't make these decisions in a vacuum. Context is so critical. For Portis, the quintessential kid of an inner-city single parent made good, it's actually everything. You've just won Southeastern Conference Player of the Year as a sophomore, and yet the prevailing belief is that you should return to school to bolster your stock. When you are 19, though, a year might as well seem like a decade, and a difference of a few slots in the draft is pretty negligible even if the money isn't. Rookie deals are still lucrative even if capped, and Portis undoubtedly felt like those first-round projections, while they could improve, could also tank.
There's also no question that Qualls and Portis borrowed, if subconsciously, from relevant history. Scotty Thurman and Corliss Williamson left Arkansas after their junior years exactly 20 years prior, and two things that weren't apparent after Arkansas's 1994 national championship victory did become obvious after the 1995 title game loss. One was that Thurman, undeniably one of the smoothest pure shooters to wear the uniform, was also a half-step slower than the model two-guard, and not quite the defender that he needed to be. The other was that Williamson's modest height was going to be viewed, fairly or not, by many execs as a literal and figurative shortcoming.
By the time that draft rolled around, Williamson had slipped to the 13th overall pick — in the lottery, but barely — and Thurman's name never got called. It was beyond dispute that had they left a year earlier, on the heels of a magical title game rather than a dud, they would've cashed in considerably. Neither player's skills diminished from one year to the next, but perceptions changed, and that is almost entirely what a professional sports draft is built upon, to be frank. There are more cautionary tales in the annals of these crapshoots than success stories, because franchises take risks and misfortune is more titillating.
Thurman was a commentator for many of these games where Portis and Qualls plied their trades the past couple of years. He knows as well as anyone that you have to seize upon an opportunity when it's there, because while it may not be the best chance, to the beholder it may appear to be the only chance. It's certainly frustrating to be a Hog fan who was encouraged by the 27-9 season that just unfolded and excited about an inevitable charmed tale playing out next fall; but, to be fair, if Kentucky can't get to 40-0 with the cornucopia of talent in its stable, then it's anything but fair to assume that Arkansas would have gone all that far even with Portis and Qualls in tow.
And yet, for all the uncertainty about where Portis could end up or whether Qualls will get selected at all, there's this: These guys could play overseas for riches if willing, or be practice-squad-level guys here, and still have financial security they've never known before. If college basketball's quality has suffered as a result of human needs and professional greed coinciding, perhaps it doesn't strain logic at all.