It’s always thrilling to win against a quality opponent, as Arkansas did against Missouri on Saturday, especially when the game comes down to the last second, but this didn’t feel like a normal game. Arkansas hadn’t played a regular season basketball game with that type of atmosphere in a long time. There was tension. There was trash-talking. There was substantial booing of Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks because of the substantial number of Missouri fans made the trip to Fayetteville.
It was a scene unlike any I’d ever seen for a Razorback basketball game both inside and outside the arena. Rarely does Fayetteville get many opposing visitors for sports other than football. But it was clear that, while there were many Razorback fans looking for tickets outside the arena, the sell-out was due to the infiltration of Missouri fans, who stood out in their gold and black amidst the red and white like plaque on teeth. Obviously, this concept of a conference neighbor is one we’ll have to get used to.
Since it was announced that Missouri was entering the SEC, there has been an expectation, or at least a hope, that Missouri would develop into a true rivalry for Arkansas. Certainly, Arkansas fans have been able to develop a hatred for a variety of conference opponents over the last 20 years, but other SEC schools already had generations-deep rivalries going when Arkansas made the switch, so mutual hatred has been a rare commodity over the years.
There was a definite basketball SEC rivalry with Kentucky when Arkansas basketball was at its peak in the early and mid-’90s, but that’s grown mild as the Razorbacks faded into mediocrity. Ole Miss is an old rival for Arkansas, and it caught fire again when Houston Nutt left Arkansas and was immediately hired by the Rebels. That was a game fans of both schools circled on their calendars – at least until Nutt’s Rebels became conference laughingstocks and he was fired before the end of his fourth season.
And ultimately, it’s difficult for Arkansas to move into the special dark corner of Ole Miss fans’ hearts reserved for hatred of Mississippi State and LSU. It’s the same problem the Razorbacks have had with anybody else in the SEC. Administrators tried to force rivalry upon Arkansas and LSU (mainly due to scheduling convenience), and while there are plenty of Arkansas fans who do hate LSU, it’s just never matched the intensity of the hatred Arkansas had for Texas just as LSU fans don’t look forward to the Arkansas game as much as their Florida or Alabama games.
Perhaps if Arkansas had actually kept LSU from the national title after the 2007 upset, something stronger may have grown between the two programs, but when a freaky set of dominos all fell the Tigers’ way the following week, LSU was back in the title game and the Arkansas upset became a footnote on the 2007 season for fans on the bayou.
But unlike the manufactured SEC rivalry with LSU, elements of a natural rivalry with Missouri have been developing for years. Beyond the obvious proximity between campuses, there have been plenty of on and off the field battles to seed animosity. Mike Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas. The Hogs have beaten the Tigers in recruiting for the likes of Ronnie Wingo, Jonathan Williams, Will Hines, and Kody Walker while the Tigers beat out Arkansas for Ricardo Ratliffe in basketball and two of their starting receivers in Marcus Lucas and, infamously, Dorial Green-Beckham.
They’ve also split a pair of bowl games over the last decade. Arkansas won the 2003 Independence Bowl, which is a largely forgotten part of that disappointing season. Meanwhile, the Tigers are quick to trumpet their Cotton Bowl blowout of the essentially coachless Arkansas team in the 2008 Cotton Bowl as evidence of their supposed football superiority.
Saturday marked the first time the two schools played against each other as conference opponents in one of the major sports, and it lived up to what we hoped it would be. Despite Arkansas giving Missouri a four-minute head start, the game always felt close. It was physical. There were several different momentum swings. Both allegiances in the crowd stayed hot throughout the game. Few things as a sports fan make your heart sink worse than hearing an opponent’s battle cry (“M-I-Z Z-O-U”) in celebration in your home arena because it appears the game is over.
But the game wasn’t over. In another trademark of a hotly contested game, one fan base left in the glow of victory, and the other left blaming the officiating. Missouri coach Frank Haith opened his post game press conference with a comment disguised as a no-comment about the referees. The Missouri site RockMNation.com, in lieu of their usual postgame reaction column, posted this series of tweets critical of the officiating at the end of the game. As if no team had ever gotten a bad call before.
BJ Young is apparently so dazzling, he can clearly travel and have it called a basket and one. Congrats to him.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 16, 2013
The end of the game has Missouri fans fervently anticipating the return matchup in Columbia on March 5th, which is exactly how a rivalry should be. Sadly, the two schools don’t face each other in football in 2013 (the annual game could begin as soon as 2014), so we’ll have to wait another year for another basketball game to keep this going. Fortunately, unlike most other SEC programs, Arkansas and Missouri both take football and basketball seriously, so games in both sports could carry rivalry significance. If the atmosphere surrounding future games at all resembles what we saw Saturday, count me in.
But let’s remember that Mizzou will travel for basketball and keep them from filling up the upper deck of Bud Walton in the future.