Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Spring break brings with it a need for cleanup and restarts and whatnot. Therefore, prescriptions are set forth herewith for Arkansas athletics in general:
For Arkansas basketball, it's time for Mike Anderson to take a cue from Bret Bielema, and not Houston Nutt, in terms of dealing with his hired hands. The head coach's loyalty to assistants Melvin Watkins, T.J. Cleveland and Matt Zimmerman is admirable enough, but what has it yielded? One NCAA Tournament appearance, no Sweet 16s and a forgettable two-game NIT stint over a five-season sample. The program is grounded in neutral at best, and clearly Anderson is being given the latitude to rebuild, but things are getting discouraging. Jimmy Whitt ended his forgettable freshman year with a thud, and now is rumored to be on the way out, and like it or not, the prospect of Moses Kingsley's premature exit remains.
It's desperation time, to be quite frank. Nutt stayed beholden to mediocre staff members for far too long, then two losing seasons (2004-05) basically put him on the wrong end of an ultimatum that ended with Gus Malzahn's hiring as offensive coordinator. We all know how that ended, but to Anderson's credit, he seems to not be addled with Nutt's limitless bounty of petulance and wrong-headedness. That may mean that, yes, you have to fire your nephew (Cleveland, whose expression has not changed since 2012) or a couple of well-tenured right-hand men (Watkins has been alongside Anderson since 2007, and Zimmerman's allegiance goes back even more years). These are competent men who can and will coach elsewhere, and be successful, but the fit in Fayetteville is uncomfortable and threadbare at best.
Speaking of Arkansas football, where the support staff constantly evolves, housecleaning is less important than housekeeping. Bielema hit a minor jackpot when he secured former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads as his new secondary coach, and the Reggie Mitchell hire from Kansas seems encouraging as well, but here's a long-term theory: Bump all these guys up 20 percent or so if the Hogs hit double digits in wins this fall. Even with so many proven commodities on their way to the NFL, the 2016 version of the Hogs still boasts an abundance of skill position and trench depth coming back, and Bielema's singular admission in his introduction to Hog fans in December 2012 was that he wanted to find a program where he had the financial flexibility to hire and retain great staff. So far, he's done an unfathomably good job of assembling a cohesive staff, but the lure of other jobs has kept the door revolving. Incentivize this enough, and it stands to reason the carousel's speed might taper.
On to baseball, which cruised nicely to a 15-3 start, then got dealt a bit of a dull whack to the gourd over the weekend in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks are, yet again, a Top 10 program with a wealth of talent, so there's no shame in dropping three close games on the road, per se, but the Hogs have been in the rare position of being completely unfamiliar with that kind of lost weekend. Last year, you might recall that the team tanked in the first two weekends, with five losses in six games to Vanderbilt and LSU, before rolling through the rest of SEC play with a 16-7 mark and seven straight series victories.
So the spring break assignment? Get the starting pitching confident again. The week off affords some rest, but maybe there's inherent beauty in getting swept right out of the gate. Baseball imparts its own unique demands on the team — no other sport plays 21 games in barely a month's time, after all — and midweek tuneups don't necessarily benefit the club at this juncture. What does help, however, is the fact that the schedule gets a lesser team to Baum Stadium than last year's one-two gauntlet of the Commodores and Bayou Tigers. Auburn comes in at 10-10, and fresh off two losses in three games to Texas A&M. The Aggies rolled up a dozen runs in each of the last two games of the series, and while the Tigers boast a fair offense, the pitching is unsteady at the moment.
Dominic Taccolini and Keaton McKinney have theoretically gotten their worst starts out of the way early, too. Both progressed last year as the season did, even with Taccolini battling injury late in the year. The staff still has great bullpen depth, and the lineup, though checked a bit by the Gamecocks, still looks dangerous.
Arkansas isn't in bad shape in any of the three anchor men's sports. Even the basketball program has some luster that can be rediscovered with a little elbow grease.
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