At some point during or after the telecast of Arkansas's listless, unspeakably awful performance Saturday at Vanderbilt, one of the commentators who had to make smirking reference to the production as the "SEC Game of the Week" unleashed this tidbit: The Razorbacks have won 12 SEC road games in the last 10 years.
That utterance gave this columnist a "Harry Doyle moment." You'll recall Bob Uecker's character in "Major League," as he read off the linescore from another Indians' loss, attaining an incredulous pitch when he saw the team's futility in print. "One hit?! We got one [expletive] hit?!" My reaction to the quantifying of Arkansas's decade-long basketball futility was similar, only nobody else was in the house to observe or hear it.
After consulting the web, it turns out our record it turns out our SEC road record in the post-Richardson era is pretty damning no matter how you quantify it: Stan Heath, John Pelphrey and Mike Anderson have combined to win only 14* such games in 11 seasons.
Averaging basically a win away from Bud Walton per year sounds right, doesn't it? We know that Stan Heath's tenure was curtailed largely due to flagging attendance at home and monumental struggles on the road, and John Pelphrey actually fared worse. Those guys had the reins for nine seasons, and with Mike Anderson's second season nearly in the books, he has not been able to reverse course.
The 2012-13 campaign has managed to make all the prior problems appear conventional. It isn't that this Arkansas team simply has a psychological barrier at this point. The Hogs are quite literally Jekyll and Hyde depending upon the environs, and you won't find any other program in the country that could thoroughly dominate a No. 2 Florida squad on a Tuesday night and then get swallowed whole by a bad Vanderbilt team four days later. When you watch Anderson on the sideline — or in the case of the Commodores' off-kilter arena, the baseline — you see a man who is as utterly confounded as the rest of us.
That, regrettably, brings me to the conclusion that Anderson may simply be too gentlemanly. Nobody would be foolish enough to zealously advocate Nolan Richardson's demeanor all the time, but the one thing that seems to distinguish the erstwhile coach from his pupil is that razor's-edge mentality that Richardson made his signature. Anyone with graying temples can easily recall the famous walk-off in Austin, which was at the time both mystifying and embarrassing, but the retrospective observation is that Nolan simply stood up for his players. He was determined to affect a game as much as anyone in cowboy boots and an ugly necktie possibly could.
This isn't to indict Anderson for a lack of intensity, but there have been numerous occasions the past two seasons where unbalanced officiating has been costly to the Razorbacks. Anderson, for his part, stops well short of castigating the refs, and there are certainly appreciable arguments to being civil. When the game is completely out of hand, though, I'm not so sure I wouldn't endorse a jacket-throwing tantrum or two. And not necessarily because I believe it would alter any given game's outcome.
Anderson is more schematic than Richardson was, and that is evident even in these losses. His team didn't play recklessly on Saturday (only 11 turnovers), a testament to the fact that even at their worst, the Hogs still manage to have some measure of poise. They missed an ungodly number of uncontested shots, suffered because Marshawn Powell got dinged with two early fouls and never could tweak the tempo to their liking. Vanderbilt, which sincerely appeared to be one of the worst teams in major-conference basketball a month ago in a 56-33 loss at Fayetteville, did a commendable job of breaking Arkansas's pressure.
But the Hogs still need someone — anyone — to exert influence on the game. It's not happening on the court at all, so the duty falls to Anderson to be something more than a tactician. In his first decade as head Hog, Richardson was rather masterful at putting his stamp on games at certain junctures, be it in the form of a well-timed technical foul or simply a mass substitution to transmit the proverbial message to a group of players that had faltered. Anderson is respectful of his position and the profession, which is by all means what you want your coach to be, but as this season hangs in the balance he is letting critical chances to reach his squad go by the boards.
*Make that 15 after the Hogs Feb. 13 win at Auburn.