Early returns good for Arkansas basketball

By: Nate Olson
Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson reacts to a call during a game against Fresno State on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson reacts to a call during a game against Fresno State on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, in Fayetteville.

It's too early to buy Final Four tickets, but this could be a special year for Arkansas basketball.

It’s been a long wait. The Hogs haven’t been relevant since the late 1990s and completely fell off since Nolan Richardson was fired in 2002. Five NCAA appearances since then and no Sweet 16s have made many around college basketball forget the Hogs used to be one of the top programs.

Mike Anderson has managed two NCAA appearances and, while it has taken time, has landed quality recruiting classes and commits the likes that haven’t been seen since Richardson was in his heyday. Last season was full of ups and downs, and after it appeared Arkansas’s NCAA Tournament hopes had been dashed, the Razorbacks made a run to the SEC Tournament championship game and won their first game of the tournament.

The Hogs nearly turned back the clock when they had North Carolina on the ropes in the second game but fell just short of the upset and a Sweet 16 appearance. Anderson doesn’t believe in moral victories, but the fans felt a little of the 1990s magic as Arkansas battled UNC on a Sunday afternoon on national TV, with social media abuzz on upset alert.

With a core group returning from that team and some dazzling young freshman, fans may not have to settle for moral victories this season. With a schedule loaded with perennial nonconference powers, including a potential rematch with the Tar Heels on Friday, the glory days may return.

The good news is, once the revival takes full effect, it may last awhile as Anderson makes Fayetteville his final destination.

This team is good. There is no way this team is finishing sixth in the SEC as predicted at SEC media days. Sixth? Are you kidding me? I’m not sure what pollsters were watching last year, but apparently it wasn’t Arkansas games, especially stretch run.

Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon have a chance to be one of the best backcourts in the country. Looking back at Richardson’s great teams he had terrific guards such as Todd Day and Lee Mayberry in the early '90s, and Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel on the 1994 national championship squad.

Barford and Macon are acrobatic slashers who can both shoot from 3-point range. Point guard Anton Beard has made on-and-off contributions since he was a freshman, and Trey Thompson is a big man with a soft touch in the paint ready to take over the starting role after seeing time behind defensive maven Moses Kingsley. Freshman big man Daniel Gafford and forward Darious Hall add athleticism and length to the lineup.

As I watched Barford and Macon slice and dice the Bucknell defense, and saw the length and speed of the Hogs bother the Bison, I thought of Anderson’s Missouri teams. My biggest criticism of the seventh-year coach has been not staying true to his roots. Not living up to the Fastest 40 moniker the UA marketing department has bestowed on the program.

Well, the first two games against Samford and Bucknell, two potential mid-major NCAA Tournament teams, Arkansas ran them out of Bud Walton Arena as they scored close to a combined 200 points combined.

Anderson’s tenure has brought some highlights including the buzzer-beater Kentucky win in 2014, but rarely have fans felt the excitement of his signature style of play. At least for the first two games, it is alive and well. The defensive intensity, the long threes and the dunks. Lots and lots of high-flying, transition dunks.

It’s a great start, but Arkansas hasn’t been really tested, yet. That’s when things could get really interesting.

Arkansas takes on Oklahoma in the opener of the Phil Knight Invitational on Thursday. The next few weeks could include games against a few nationally-ranked opponents.

So you see, a good, vibrant team coupled with this schedule could really heighten Arkansas’ status as the SEC season begins in late December. From there, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them challenge the likes of Kentucky.

Arkansas basketball isn’t back to its glory days, but this year could be the closest it has come in a while.

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