Snippets from Hog land as we enter the quasi-doldrums of late spring:
• Nobody is likely to accuse Bret Bielema of being a renaissance man, and maybe that sounds like derision, but it's far from it. Pearls can and does appreciate the modern bravado that he employs, though Jeff Long may ultimately have to yank the reins on his ebullient coach.
Bielema made a smattering of noise at the start of the month by basically denouncing Nick Saban's Michigan State record compared to Bielema's own ledger at Wisconsin. He goosed some smack-talkers on Twitter again, too. Some predictably bristled, and others hailed it as bold gamesmanship. Whatever you want to call it, Bielema basically did what Bielema does: He shows gusto even when it's on the speaking circuit.
Last year at Wisconsin, with the ever-unctuous Urban Meyer about to join the Big 10 ranks, Bielema promptly took a dig at Meyer's recruiting tactics. This is, for better or worse, the Bielema shtick. He cajoles and takes the occasional swipe, and basically does things to upset the stodgy apple cart of college football coaching ranks. And even Alabama fans would have to concede that Saban is a remarkably rigid figure, and that for the foreseeable future, perhaps the best way for Arkansas to try to get a leg up on the Tide is by way of public needling.
It may not work. Hell, it may be the underpinnings of a later implosion. But in all sincerity, can you fault Bielema for taking even dramatic and dangerous steps to try to restore the Hogs' general swagger? After a 52-0 pasting last year at home against the Tide, and with John L. Smith's media relations being so insipid, it's hard to quibble with the new rhetoric.
• The diamond Hogs' ascension back into the Top 10, from which they plummeted after a bad but largely inconsequential Western swing, is nothing more than validation of the raw value of experienced pitching. Arkansas has a team ERA that, after 32 games, is the kind of figure (1.59) you expect to maintain only after a season-opening series or two against patsies. If the team's .278 batting average doesn't pop off the stat sheet, the fact that it is eighty-four points higher than the opposition's cumulative clip certainly should.
More numbers that will astonish and beguile you: There is not a single pitcher on the Razorback staff who has an ERA over 3.00. There are nine hurlers who are giving up less than two runs per nine. Even in this greatly defused dead-ball era of college baseball, the numbers are flat daunting.
If the Hogs are able to maintain status quo after LSU comes to Baum Stadium this weekend, it will constitute an even more grandiose miracle. The Tigers are off to a blistering 30-2 start and may be the most balanced team in the country, with three frontline starters and a slugging senior outfielder named Mason Katz whose 13 home runs equal that of the entire Hog roster. LSU has settled into its customary spot as the beast of a brutal conference, and while Arkansas's arms are anything but intimidated, there is no question that this is the preeminent lineup they will have to deal with. It will truly be strength against strength on the Hill and the place should accordingly be alive.
• The national championship game on Monday night was absurdly entertaining, and as you watched Louisville complete a breathless run to the crown with an 82-76 win over Michigan, you got the sense that college basketball is still healthy. Whether it will leave Arkansas behind is hard to project, but if you are a Hog fan, your hope should spring eternal for the moment.
Louisville and Michigan embody exactly the kind of stylistic resurgence that Arkansas hopes to recapture. They are both masterfully coached — Rick Pitino's credentials are unimpeachable, and John Beilein is undeniably first-rate — and both push the throttle without being reckless. What probably made Hog fans salivate was the uncanny perimeter accuracy that unheralded guys like Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht brought. Gunners make the world go around, and Mike Anderson hasn't pinpointed one yet.
But pay heed to the way each team attacked the other's pressure, too, and note that everything that Anderson wants to impart is viable. Teams in peak condition can and will be physical, and can and will withstand a major injury such as the one Kevin Ware memorably suffered on Easter Sunday in the regional final. Most importantly, teams that have suffered lengthy championship droughts (Arkansas won a title more recently than either Louisville or Michigan had) can get back on the big stage when all the parts are clicking.
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