Hoop-de-do: ‘Hey, SEC, Razorback Basketball is baaaack!’


By Kevin McPherson

It’s so easy to sum up the 2014-15 SEC basketball landscape by simply saying, “There’s Kentucky, then there’s the rest of the SEC” … or for that matter, insert  “There’s Kentucky, then there’s the rest of the country.” And that might just as well sum up the current condition of the national college basketball scene. But, the reality is the Arkansas Razorback basketball team is a win against Texas A&M on Tuesday away from going into Rupp Arena on Saturday with a mathematical chance to still win the SEC title with only three games remaining.

Not looking for a miracle or reaching for something that’s not there, but coming down the home stretch of a season where Kentucky has already made history in its media mega-hyped “Pursuit of Perfection” march, it would be easy to overlook several firsts at Arkansas since the previous century.

While one coach continues to add McDonald’s All Americans to his human trophy case, and the wins and spoils of winning keep rolling in for John Calipari at a record pace as a result, another coach has clearly stuck to his knitting and woken a sleeping giant — a real monster once upon a time that stormed into the SEC to remind Kentucky how to win on the biggest stages again.

What Mike Anderson and this Razorback basketball team is doing is certainly flying under the national and SEC radars because of Kentucky’s bright Big Blue glow, but make no mistake, the Hogs are oh-so close to fighting for that throne again atop the SEC.

Where to begin.

At 22-5 overall and 11-3 in the SEC, you have to go back to the last century — specifically, the 1997-98 season — to match that level of Hog winning through the third week of February, but that team dropped its final two SEC games to finish the regular season 22-7 and 11-5 in the SEC. So, assuming the next Arkansas win happens in this regular season, it puts these Hogs in the company of that magical 1993-94 national championship season and the follow-up national runners-up team of 1994-95 as the only Hog teams ever to win at least 12 SEC games in a regular season (granted, the SEC now plays 18 conference games compared to 16 before the addition of A&M and Missouri to the league three years ago). Currently at 5-2 on the road in the SEC, the Hogs are assured of a winning road record in SEC play. The last time that happened was 1994-95, when the Hogs finished SEC road play at 5-3 on their way to the last Final Four this program has enjoyed. Win its last two road games, and this team will be the first to EVER win seven SEC road games in a season.

There are so many similarities to that 1993-94/1994-95 group when you break it down by players (more on that later), but focusing on the here and now, you can only wonder how much pressure Kentucky would be feeling if not for the rob-job done on the Hogs down in Gainesville a few weeks ago. Seriously, a 25-to-7 free throw disparity capped off by a horrible whistle at the end is the only thing keeping Arkansas from a 10-game winning streak and a chance for a double play this week (wins at home vs. emerging Texas A&M and then at Goliath Kentucky) that would move them within a game of first place in the SEC with two games left to play.

That’s how close the Hogs are … Mike Anderson has taken the last three from Calipari and his college all-stars, and you have to wonder how comfortable the ‘Cats would be clinging to a two-game lead with the Hogs on their way to Lexington on Saturday and three more games left to play.

Letting go of the ‘Cats’ tail, let’s look at what the Hogs must do to sew up the 2nd seed for the SEC Tournament

Take my word for it, the SEC tiebreaker rules are as complicated as they come, but they are a much easier pill to swallow than the previous East-West seeding scenarios that far too often rewarded mediocre/less deserving teams with first-round byes.

For 11-3 Arkansas, currently one game ahead of Texas A&M and Ole Miss (both 10-4), the math is real simple to earn the SEC’s 2nd seed: 1) beat Texas A&M on Tuesday at BWA (this has become the biggest game in the SEC this year not involving Kentucky because of its second-place implications); 2) finish 2-1 against the trio of Kentucky (road), South Carolina (road) and LSU (home); AND 3) watch as Kentucky takes down Florida in Rupp Arena. If that combination of results play out, Ole Miss is the only team that could finish in a tie with the Hogs at 14-4, but Arkansas would win the tiebreakers that follow the head-to-head results, which would also be a tie at 1-1.

Furthermore, if you don’t already consider Saturday’s road win over Mississippi State as the Hogs’ Dance-ticket-puncher, you can consider Arkansas’s next win as a lock for the NCAAT, meaning they can go 1-4 including getting bounced from their first game in the SECT, and at 23-9 and 12-7 SEC they’re in.

The Hogs are currently No. 20 in NCAA RPI, No. 18 in the AP poll (no change from last week), and No. 16 in the coaches’ poll (up one from last week), so they are currently tracking as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament with plenty of opportunities to move up.

These Hogs look more like the ’93-94 national champs than you might think …

Comparing and contrasting different Hog teams can be fun, but it’s really fun when there are so many similarities between this current team that is just off life-support (think about that last 15 years of the program and you’ll agree) and the one that brought home the school’s only basketball national championship when the program was in the middle of an elite run roughly 20 years ago.

In my best Rod Serling narration with the volume of that creepy “Twilight Zone” music escalating from the background to the foreground, I respectfully submit to you …

* With four games remaining, these current Hogs need just two more wins to join the 1993-94 team with more than 12 conference wins in a regular season, and three more wins will enable them to match that team’s total of 14 league wins. The ’93-94 Hogs went 14-2 in the SEC .

* The 1993-94 Hogs lost a total of 3 SEC games — one in the SEC tourney against the previous SEC regular-season champ (1992-93), Kentucky. Fast-forward to 2014-15, and though these Hogs will likely suffer at least one more league loss, they too have only three SEC losses to this point — one of which came against the previous SEC regular-season champ (from 2013-14), Florida.

* The 1993-94 team is the only one in school history to win six SEC road games in a single season, and if these Hogs can split against Kentucky and South Carolina on the road, they’ll join them with six wins. Sweep the remaining road games, and this team eclipses the national title team.

* The 1993-94 national championship team was led by a native son, Corliss Williamson, a home-grown power forward, a former McDonald’s All American, SEC Player of the Year, and the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Fast-forward to 2014-15, and this team is led by a native son, Bobby Portis, a home-grown power forward, a former McDonald’s All American, currently the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.

* The 1993-94 national championship team had an All SEC player, a Robin to Corliss’ Batman, a native son of Louisiana who came into the program off the national radar, a swingman named Scotty Thurman, the team’s second-leading scorer and a big-game finisher. Fast-forward to 2014-15, and this team has an All SEC player, a Robin to Portis’ Batman, a native son of Louisiana who came into the program off the national radar, a swingman named Michael Qualls, the team’s second-leading scorer and a big-game finisher.

* The 1993-94 national champions had a starting backcourt of Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel, who were in their first season of regularly starting together (in 1992-93, Clint started in only 11 games because senior Robert Shepard was the regular backcourt mate of Beck, who himself only started 20 games). Both guards were tough in their own ways, both were defense-first-and-offense-second-type players, and neither had to be more than complements to each other while playing third and fourth fiddle to Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman. Fast-forward to 2014-15, and this team has a starting backcourt of Rashad “Ky” Madden and Anton Beard, who are also in their first season of regularly starting together. Both guards are tough in their own ways, both are offense first and defense second (flipping the strengths of Beck and Clint), and neither have to be more than complements to each other while playing third and fourth fiddle to Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls.

* The X-factor in the starting lineup for that 1993-94 national championship team was a 6-9 forward, Dwight Stewart, who was more perimeter-oriented on offense, but underrated defensively because of his bulk inside and ability to take up space, maintain his position and rebound. Fast-forward to 2014-15, and this team’s starter who is the X-factor is a 6-6 forward, Alandise Harris, who is more perimeter-oriented offensively, but underrated defensively because of his ability to block shots and hold his position on the defensive block due to his bulk and strength.

There are some other similarities, too, like Anthlon Bell being a poor man’s (actually, a destitute man’s) hired gun off the bench a la Al Dillard. Both were volume shooters/scorers who could put up numbers in limited minutes. Or Moses Kingsley being that 6-foot-10 athlete you can bring off the bench in the same vein as a Darnell Robinson or a Lee Wilson. Those would be stretches in comparisons, and the truth is, there are a lot of differences in the two teams that favor the championship team in a big way.

For one, those Hogs played in an era when college basketball was much better. The SEC was much better then, too. From the 1992-93 season through the 1995-96 seasons (four years), the SEC had two national champs (Hogs and Kentucky), three national title game appearances (Hogs twice and Kentucky once), four different Final Four programs for a total of six Final Four appearances (Hogs twice, Florida, Kentucky twice and Mississippi State), and even more Elite Eights and Sweet 16s. So, winning 10 or more SEC games back then meant a lot more than it does today. 

Secondly, the defensive prowess in the backcourt of that 1993-94 team — namely Beck and McDaniel — fueled everything defensively for that team, and it was a better complement to the one-two offensive punch of Corliss-Scotty than Madden and Beard are capable of giving defensively as a complement to the one-two offensive punch of Portis-Qualls.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the skill level, talent and size in reserves 6 through 10 from 1993-94 was just superior to what this team can offer. Roger Crawford, Al Dillard, Davor Rimac, Darnell Robinson, and Lee Wilson just brought more to the table than these Hog reserves do. And that’s the real difference right now as Mike Anderson is still rebuilding his program to where he can put SEC championship caliber, maybe national championship caliber, teams on the floor. It took Richardson nine seasons to reach what he had in 1993-94.

The chase for 1,000 points is not over, it’s just getting heated up …

Rashad Madden’s journey from national Top 50 high school recruit, to a role player with limited impact as a freshman and sophomore, to a key cog as a junior and senior, was accentuated in recent weeks when he not only reached 1,000 points to become the 36th Razorback to do it, but he also topped 300 rebounds and 300 assists for a career, becoming only the eighth Hog to join the 1,000-300-300 club, and the first native Arkansan to do it.

Congratulations to Madden, but the chase for 1,000 points is not even close to being over. Michael Qualls, the junior small forward from Shreveport, is up next, currently sitting on 944 career points and needing just 56 more to reach 1,000. So, assuming Arkansas played a minimum of six more games, Qualls would need to average 9.4 points to get there. He’s currently averaging 15.3 points per game, so Qualls will soon become the 37th Hog to reach 1,000 points in a career.

The most interesting chase is Bobby Portis’, because there is uncertainty as to whether or not he will return for his junior season or make himself available for the 2015 NBA Draft, and because it is less certain that he can get to 1,000 points by the end of this season. Not sure if you have been paying attention, but BP is on pace to reach 1,000 points by season’s end if the Hogs play seven more games (they are assured of playing six more with the postseason). Portis is sitting on 889 points right now, needing 111 more to become the 38th Razorback to join the 1,000-point club. Assuming the Hogs play seven more games, he needs to average 15.9 points per game to get there. He’s currently averaging 17.4 points per game. 

What’s in the water at Little Rock Parkview?

Freshmen guard Anton Beard’s climb to the starting lineup was Mike Anderson’s most recent chess move to elevate his team to another level, arguably the catalyst for the current 6-game win streak. And it got me to thinking: What a guard factory Little Rock Parkview has been over the years.

It’s a testament to Coach Charles Ripley and probably more so to current Parkview Coach Al Flanigan, because talk about player development: The quality of their tough guards as players outweights the quality of the measureables and talent in those players. In each case, these guards carry themselves like winners, too, with an air of confidence and unflappable toughness: Derek Fisher, Dion Cross, Wes Flanigan, Jason Flanigan, Jason Harrison (at 5-foot-5 was SEC Player of the Year), I.J. Ready and now Anton Beard (I know, originally from North Little Rock and a who finished up there, but make no mistake, his game screams “Parkview tutelage” from his days player there for Flanigan). And those are just the higher profile players.

Other schools in Little Rock have produced great players and guards (Hall especially, and Central, too), but at Little Rock Parkview, their guards seem to roll off the conveyor belt with the same high-quality ingredients every time.

* * *

Kevin McPherson started out as a sportwriter with the Arkansas Gazette, about the time Nolan got things rollin’ and before he got smart and joined the business world. But he still joneses to write about college basketball and the Razorbacks in general, and his column appears here regularly.

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