Kevin McPherson: As Team Readies for SEC Tourney, Hawgball Is Back

 

 

Just minutes after the Arkansas Razorbacks disposed of the Georgia Bulldogs, 85-67, in their final home game of the season Saturday at Bud Walton Arena, a couple of landmark moments took place as I was making my way from press row to the media room located in the bowels of BWA. Two images that cemented my impression of the current state of the men’s basketball program at Arkansas.

One, senior Dusty Hannahs — on Senior Day – grabbed a microphone near halfcourt while celebrating the win with teammates to give an impromptu pronouncement to the 5,000 fans or so who had not yet made their way out of the arena: ”We’re goin’ Dancin’!”

Two, at about the same time that Hannahs dropped the mic, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long was joyfully bouncing — not walking or strolling, no, he harmoniously raced right by me on his way through the tunnel that leads to the media area while he celebrated with Hog fans, patting them on their backs, shaking their hands, smiling and laughing with them along the way.

From a soon-to-be outgoing senior to the man in charge of all the sports at the University of Arkansas, the message was loud and clear: All is good with Hawgball … or the Fastest 40 … or Razorbacks basketball. Whatever you want to call it, University of Arkansas men’s basketball under Mike Anderson’s leadership looks to be on its way to restoring a once-proud, tradition-rich program back to SEC and national relevance.

At 23-8, 12-6 for 3rd place in SEC, and RPI No. 28, the 2016-17 Arkansas team is projected by all reasonable measures to be solidly in the field of 68 NCAAT teams that will be announced by the Selection Committee on Sunday, March 12 — regardless of what happens in this week’s SEC tournament. At this point, Arkansas can use the SECT as an opportunity to improve its NCAAT resume for better seeding, with the potential to move up from current 9-seed projections to as high as a 7-seed, possibly a 6-seed, by winning the SECT.

Just a few weeks ago after back-to-back ugly losses at lowly Missouri and Vanderbilt at home, it looked like Anderson’s track record of 1 NCAA tournament appearance in his first 5 years as Arkansas head coach might slip to 1 in 6. But the chasm from the perception of what “1 in 5″ or ” 1 in 6″ represented to the reality of where things stand today is Grand Canyon-wide, because the truth is the program has been on an upswing since the first year Mike Anderson came home to lead the Hogs.

On the heels of a 5-season drought consisting of ZERO postseason tournaments from 2008-09 through 2012-13 (last 3 years under John Pelphrey and first 2 years under Anderson, who inherited Pelphrey’s toxic dumpster fire), Arkansas is poised to play in its 2nd NCAAT in the past 3 years, and including the 2013-14 NIT team, the program will have participated in the postseason 3 of the last 4 years.

Also, when looking back at the past 3 seasons, the Hogs have put themselves behind only Kentucky in several key categories:

* Total wins (2nd-most at 66, includes non-conference, SEC, SECT, and NCAAT)

* Total SEC record (2nd-best at 36-22, includes regular-season SEC and SECT games)

* Total SEC road record (2nd-best at 15-12, only Arkansas and Kentucky have winning SEC road records in that span)

* And get this, assuming Arkansas does Dance this season, only Kentucky has more NCAAT appearances (3) among SEC teams in the last 3 years, with Arkansas next at 2 in 3. Vanderbilt will possibly also reach 2 in 3 (currently on the Bubble, but projected in the Dance as of today), with 5 other SEC teams tied at 1 appearance each in that same span (including Florida, which is a lock to return to the NCAAT after missing out the past 2 seasons).

We all know Kentucky, the winningest and most storied program in all of college basketball, is basically a one-year layover destination for NBA lottery picks to practice in front of famous rappers while running wild through the SEC. No shame in being 1st-runner-up to the Wildcats in the SEC, and Arkansas has as good an argument (if not the best argument) for being the “next best” in the league over the past 3 seasons.

Now, the SEC is not considered a top-tier basketball league, certainly it has struggled for a decade or longer when compared to high-major leagues such as the ACC, Big XII, Big 10, Big East, and Pac-12 … but, two years ago when the Hogs won 27 games, finished 2nd in the SEC and SECT, finished 20th in the national polls, and had the SEC Player of the Year / 2nd-team All American in Bobby Portis, the SEC landed a respectable 5 teams in the Dance. As of now, the SEC is projected once again to land 5 teams in the field of 68, which if projections hold true would be tied for 4th-most teams from a conference with the nationally respected Big XII. So, the league is not as bad as many hoop fans believe.

And none of the afore-mentioned Hawgball positives takes into consideration the future recruiting classes that have either been mostly signed (2017) or committed (2018), both of which (on paper) appear to be Anderson’s best recruiting classes.

Hawgball looks to be in great shape, but don’t just take my word for it.

During the post-Georgia-game press conference, I asked Arkansas’s trio of seniors – captains Moses Kingsley and Manuale Watkins, as well as Hannahs –  about the foundation they have laid for the return of Hawgball.

Hannahs answered first.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It was rollin’ (2014-15 season) … and then last year stopped us in water, everyone was shocked. Close games weren’t going our way … this year, we had a chance to turn the tides and get Hawgball back rollin’, and we did that. And that’s what makes it really special.”

Manny Watkins, who along with Kingsley will have 2 NCAATs and 1 NIT in his 4 years as a Hog, went a bit further and deeper with his assessment of the program.

“Like Dusty said, it’s special. What I wanted to do when I came here was bring Hawgball back to where it was when entering the tournament wasn’t a conversation, it was a given that we’re going for national championships. We just want to keep building that foundation.

“And to all those kids out there who become big-time players and are considering Arkansas, I mean, I think you’d be stupid not to. Honestly, this has been the best experience of my life. Hawgball’s back and it’s here to stay. Stick with it because it’s back.”

Stick with it. That’s great advice coming from a group of leaders who helped this team overcome numerous double-digit deficits to win games on the road, who overcame ugly losses to Mizzou and Vandy to win 6 of their last 7 games to punch their ticket to the Dance, who went about their knitting while fans took to social media and message boards calling for Long to hit the reset button on the basketball program.

If this team continues to stick with it, they might just move the needle a bit further than the 27-win team did in 2014-15 when it advanced to the third-round of the NCAA tourney. You never know, but maybe  it’s high time for Hog fans to be good Dance partners and stick with the one who brung ya — it’s Hawgball, it’s back, and it’s yours.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

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