Collins to work toward increasing visitation to Arkansas by groups and promoting the state's appeal
Sure, I'd like to think that Pearls About Swine, that modest batch of haphazard prose, had something to do with motivating Arkansas's beleaguered basketball program to rise from a seemingly inestimable late-season swoon to re-emerge in the NCAA Tournament discussion. I know it's folly, but, hey, I've been sharply critical of Coach Mike Anderson and his seeming lack of connection to his players as things started to drift into peril, so maybe in some tiny way I've touched a nerve.
Arkansas followed up two abject disasters — Missouri ended its 13-game losing streak by beating the Hogs in Columbia, and then Vanderbilt came to Bud Walton Arena and throttled them three nights later — with a halftime redirection at LSU to win there. That wasn't enough, of course, to get back through the gossamer bubble, but it helped stop all the fishtailing for a bit. Still, the Hogs had to take on a ranked and dangerous South Carolina team in one of its last real chances to curry favor with the selection committee, and then had to return home from that trip to square off against Ole Miss, a team that has historically bedeviled Arkansas on its own court.
The challenge was daunting. And after about five minutes against the Gamecocks, who were whipping the Razorbacks up and down the court in a transition frenzy that led to a 19-5 lead a few minutes in, it looked like the challenge was summarily ignored. Carolina was exploiting all the same ills that have dogged this team for, well, a couple of decades. It looked like a rout in the making, in much the same way the Oklahoma State disaster in late January played out from tipoff till final whistle.
Something curious and damn-near unprecedented happened, though. Arkansas finally flaunted that resilience and tough-mindedness that it has sometimes flashed in the final minutes of games but rarely sported at any other occasion. Pinned by 14 quickly, the Hogs leaned on junior guard Jaylen Barford thereafter, and he carried them the rest of the first half. An ensuing 25-2 run flipped the scoreboard completely, and even though the Gamecocks drew close by halftime, it was evident that the Hogs weren't going to stand idly away from the fray that followed.
And it was a remarkable second half. As Carolina's SEC Player of the Year favorite Sindarius Thornwell kept plugging away and trying to push his team back ahead, Arkansas simply answered and answered and answered again. Barford ended up with 17 of his 23 points in the first half, but after that, Dusty Hannahs regained his form and put home 20, including four three-pointers, and Moses Kingsley showed off with a 16-point, seven-rebound, four-block effort in the 83-76 win. Manuale Watkins had to sink a garish 18-foot prayer with a dwindling shot clock in the final minute, and the Hogs made 16 of 18 free throws and shot over 50 percent from the floor. As has suddenly become the case, the Hogs were largely and strangely undaunted in the most daunting of conditions, playing in an utterly composed fashion in environs that have commonly deprived them of poise over the years.
That backcourt chemistry — Barford, Hannahs and Daryl Macon were good for 56 of the Hogs' 83 points in that win — bled right on over to Saturday's tilt with the Rebels. While Andy Kennedy's team is unlikely to draw anything but NIT consideration this year due to a spate of losses early on, the Rebs were still playing solid basketball and in position to really throw the SEC standings into disharmony if they could beat the Hogs for the sixth time in seven games at Bud Walton Arena. Thanks to a zealous crowd of 15,000-plus, though, Arkansas ended up playing its finest game of the year, routing the Rebels 98-80 in a game that truthfully wasn't even that close.
This time, Hannahs ceded the three-point arc to Macon, who poured in a career-best 30 points and six threes in only 24 minutes off the bench. Barford was good for 15 and, while Hannahs was held to nine points, Anton Beard returned from being hampered by illness earlier in the week to drain three more three-pointers and put in 11 points off the bench. Yet again, the Hogs' guard play was enough alone to win the game, but the real statement was issued by Kingsley and fellow post veteran Trey Thompson.
It says a great deal about the quality of the tandem's play that they only managed eight combined field goal attempts but impacted the game substantially at both ends of the floor. Kingsley was measured in his offensive approach, taking only four shots, and that would normally suggest a lack of aggression that has at times plagued him during his final audition for the NBA. But the visuals didn't lie: the senior center was simply terrific, snatching 13 rebounds, many with authority and with Ole Miss players draped across his back and arms, and blocking four shots, all forcefully. Thompson, not much of an offensive threat, sank all four of his shots for eight points, but most importantly augmented Kingsley's paint work with eight boards, three blocks and three steals of his own. Proving that both were of an unselfish mind, they combined for six assists as well.
The most impressive facet of the win against the Rebels came midway through the second half as the visitors used a brief flurry to knock out a double-digit deficit and squeeze within 56-51. From there, the Hogs tapped into the same source from the Carolina win, running off with a 19-0 burst to blow the game wide open. And every component of the Hogs' ideal game was on display: on-ball defense and switching was timely and tight, ball movement was swift and precise, and shot selection was top-notch. It's no wonder that this team, at 20-7 and 9-5, looks as good as its record or even better right now, because the talent to excel as a team has always been in place.
Now let's see if they can sustain momentum, one malady yet to be fully cured in a season of strange inconsistencies. If they do, they're comfortably getting onto the dance card.