Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
To rejuvenate and inspire a Razorback basketball team that seemed badged with mediocrity, Coach Mike Anderson likely pinpointed the football brethren, a once and past disaster that sprang from the ashes and reversed its course at the turn.
Maybe it'll work. The Hogs are a modest 8-7, but that slew of losses includes some whisper-thin, anguish-ridden defeats. Once conference play began, Arkansas had to set out on the road and got ravaged by a ranked and offensively skilled Texas A&M team that is easily the best Billy Kennedy has assembled in College Station.
That was a blemish but Arkansas benefited, at least apparently, from getting that kind of thorough whipping. The Hogs returned to Bud Walton Arena last week and obviously considered the Aggies' thrashing one of paramount importance for whatever postseason fate they might retain hopes of.
First bounce-back was a tilt against Vanderbilt, and it went exceedingly well. Moses Kingsley's continued transcendence from project to force hit its apex with another double-double. Even Keaton Miles, the normally punchless swingman, had two big baskets late, which preceded Anthlon Bell's seemingly heroic three-pointer with two seconds left that had the Razorbacks buoyed for a two-point win in regulation. Instead, Anderson frustratingly signaled for a timeout, which allowed Vandy to trigger in a snowbird from the baseline that star forward Damion Jones caught, then thundered toward the basket with a tying slam.
It was not only an emphatic dunk, but had all the feel of being a deflating one. And yet, a team lacking fortitude finally displayed some. Dusty Hannahs, mired in a rough perimeter shooting night, sank a crisp floater in the lane to key the Hogs' pulling away in the extra frame. The 90-85 final staked Arkansas to a .500 overall and league record, but mostly it demonstrated that this squad might be better equipped to deal with tight margins than we had thought. Bell and Kingsley were again the impetus behind the victory, but their scoring would have never been enough and won't be as the season winds on.
That truism was big the following weekend. Bell was scalding again, putting home five more threes against Mississippi State on Saturday, but in this game the Bulldogs sagged into the middle in a bid to stop Kingsley. That paid some dividends as the junior center struggled to find space in the paint, and only ended up with a respectable 13-point, nine-rebound showing after toiling at the line and around the basket late.
Hannahs took the cue. He splashed in eight threes, and three or four of those were second-half daggers as seemingly every time Ben Howland's rebuilt roster surged back into striking distance, the Texas Tech transfer was able to cut around a pick and launch freely. The final 82-68 margin was impressive enough but the team's scintillating long-range showing was beyond reproach. Hitting 16 of 24 threes proved that this may be the most dangerous batch of shooters we've seen in the post-Richardson era, but accuracy means little unless it's augmented with selectivity. Nobody is slinging it without the proper opportunity and space to square shoulders and get a clean look.
The newly disciplined manner of play doubtless stems from the maturity of point guard Jabril Durham, who's got a bit of a poor man's Corey Beck vibe as his senior season unfolds. Leading the SEC in assists, pilfering steals, and taking smart and timely shots, Durham's steadiness is the kind of unanticipated intangible that might make overachievers out of this team yet. He was good for 10 points and 12 assists against the Bulldogs, evidence that he considered all the fuss over Anton Beard's legal woes to be insulting. He was overlooked as a floor general, but the high quality of his play has validated his worth after his junior year was something of a lost campaign.
Arkansas's best performances may be ahead, too. Beard is slowly trying to adjust to whatever role he will assume going forward. Miles is earning minutes with appreciable dirty work. Trey Thompson still has the appearance of a guy whose stock will soar if he can get one or two quality showings in succession. And Jimmy Whitt's recent rut can't last forever — the freshman is too explosive and gifted as a scorer to stay mired in a funk for long.
Lamenting the early exits of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls is wasted breath; their decisions to leave permitted other returnees the chance to take ownership of a team bereft of it. Kingsley wasn't going to progress like this with another year in Portis' long shadow. Bell spent three years searching out a niche in his own right. Both are producing at high levels and if the underlings can draw from those examples as the season grinds on, there's a chance that this will be one formidable bunch in February and March.
And fortunately, a more balanced but overall less potent conference means that Arkansas again can seize upon that. The likes of Missouri and Auburn remain unimposing, and the Hogs simply don't fear Ole Miss, Florida, or even Ben Simmons-led LSU. But they'll have to win ugly, win close, and win smart, three qualities that have been sporadic over the years.