The story never seems to change. Change is often teased, but never seems to come to fruition.
It’s obviously incredibly frustrating for Arkansas fans to watch the basketball team year in and year out, hoping it can get back to just basic relevancy. But most of the time lately, fans spend games trying to come up with new ways to describe how badly the team is playing. Personally, I’d appreciate if someone would splice together a lowlights video and making Nancy Kerrigan’s infamous cries of “Whyyyyy?” as the audio.
Following a disastrous week in which the Hogs lost a second SEC home game, suspended two players, and were blown out in another road disappointment, there seemed to be an impression of inevitability. That expectations were set unreasonably high for a program that’s gone so long without making the NCAA Tournament and lost so many road games, not to mention lost six straight SEC Tournament games. That media and fans simply misjudged them.
I think that’s a total cop-out.
Sure, we might be proven wrong on the surface because they probably won’t make the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have the ability to get there. Even now, after everything Arkansas basketball has gone through, I have a very difficult time with the idea that just making the NCAA Tournament is too lofty a goal. We’re not talking about Final Fours or Sweet Sixteens or even winning a Tournament game. We’re talking about just making the field. For the rest of my life I’ll probably always believe the Arkansas Razorbacks should, at the very least, be able to make the NCAA Tournament. Between facilities, fan interest, and history, I struggle with the notion that this can’t be a top-50 program as a general rule instead of an exception.
I’ll always believe this team has the talent to get there. This isn’t a young team. Or at least it’s not that young. They normally start three seniors and a junior. More upperclassmen contribute significant minutes. The big question coming into the season was replacing the production of Marshawn Powell and BJ Young, but that hasn’t been an issue at all. The Hogs are ranked 18th in the country in points per game and 28th in assists per game. Bobby Portis by himself has nearly matched Powell’s numbers from last year. The backcourt combo of Ky Madden and Fred Gulley has improved enough to nullify the loss of Young.
However, the suspension of Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris highlights the fact that some of the players aren’t performing up to their capabilities. And the thing is, they’ve shown us what they can do. There’s been a lot of talk regarding strong performances against weak December competition, but that’s not really true either. Qualls hit six threes in the three games in Maui. He’s hit six total in the seven SEC games Arkansas has played. For whatever reason, once the calendar flipped to 2014, he’s mostly struggled (including a 3-for-11 performance against UTSA on January 4th).
Qualls is by no means the only one. Harris was arguably the best player on the team in November. He averaged 15.8 points per game until December hit. He scored 21 points against an SMU team that currently is a top-50 RPI opponent. He scored 15 against Minnesota and 17 against Gonzaga. Since then, he’s only broken double figures three times. Two of those came against Florida and Kentucky, but Harris has only managed five total points in the last three games he’s played. Anthlon Bell hit 11 threes in the four games between SMU and Gonzaga – all quality opponents. In the 15 games since Maui, he’s hit 13.
It’s not all on those three players. There are other problems besides scoring. Rebounding and defense continue to put the team in bad spots. But I point that out about those players because these are talented players. These are not bad players. They’ve performed well against strong competition. Arkansas didn’t just put up big numbers against High Point and Southeast Louisiana.
So, yes, what has happened so far in SEC play is very disappointing. I do think they’re better than what they’ve shown over the last month. In most of the SEC games, the Razorbacks have shot the ball poorly, below 40%. That’s the most obvious reason they’ve lost some of their games, and their own past performances suggest it’s not unreasonable to expect better than what we’ve seen.
This isn’t a phenomenon that’s only imbibing this year’s team. Last year’s team might have won some of those dastardly road games if Young and Mardracus Wade had just shot about the same percentage from three as they did in 2012. And that 2012 team was likely doomed when Powell blew out his knee in November, but they were on the bubble by the end of January after beating Michigan, a ranked Mississippi State team and a ranked Vanderbilt team, but they collapsed in February. Of course, the most egregious recent example is likely the 2009 team that beat top-10 Oklahoma and Texas teams, worked their way up to the “others receiving votes” list, and then went 2-14 in SEC play.
I don’t think Arkansas fans have high expectations for basketball just because of what happened in the 90s. But when they do play so well against good teams, that sets a standard fans want to see continued. Those performances remind fans of what this program has been and provide faith that it can be again.
This team set everybody’s standards and expectations in November. People were excited well before the Hogs blew out Savannah State. They played good teams and for the most part played well. For whatever reason, that largely hasn’t kept up since January began, and expectations for the end of the season have gone down. And that’s frustrating because if there’s anything proven by the anger and disappointment after every loss, it’s that the fans still crave a winning basketball program.
That’s a very good thing, even if it hurts when things are bad. Hopefully, sometime soon, those expectations will be fulfilled.