Night Line: Dominating Display From Arkansas Revives Tournament HopesPosted by BHayes on February 6th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
About a year and two weeks ago, Mike Anderson’s Arkansas team took down Michigan in a nationally-televised game at Bud Walton Arena. The Arkansas faithful had long waited for a win like this — their native son back and at the helm, famed arena alive again. The Razorbacks also walked off the floor with a 14-5 record and tentative March reservations, but the next two months would show why rebuilding jobs rarely happen overnight. Arkansas went just 4-9 after Trey Burke missed that three at the buzzer, finishing the season with an underwhelming 6-10 SEC record. Flash forward to this season, and this Tuesday night: Another marquee opponent in Fayetteville, national TV audience again watching at home, and Mike Anderson’s team in dire need of a signature victory. They got the massive win once again, this time dismantling #2 Florida — yes, that #2 Florida, who entered the night winners of 10 straight games. The Gators left Fayetteville losers of one straight game, and the Razorbacks are proud new owners of one of the single best victories of the season. It’s a win that will shine come Selection Sunday, but the Razorbacks have plenty of work to do to make that day even matter. The challenge is not just avoiding the late-year collapse of a season ago, but actually making a February push for inclusion in the field of 68.
Tonight, Arkansas accomplished many things that Mike Anderson preaches on a nightly basis. First and foremost for Anderson is forcing turnovers, and the Hawgs’ frenetic defense caused 16 Florida giveaways tonight. Many of the miscues resulted in transition opportunities for the home team, and Coty Clarke and company did well in turning those opportunities into finishes — many of them of the emphatic variety. Arkansas also did a serviceable job on the glass, ending the game essentially even in the category with the bigger, more physical Gators. The Razorbacks were the aggressor from the opening tip, and only a late Florida push made this final score respectable.
So Mike Anderson has to be happy for tonight, but is this team capable of doing what his first Arkansas club could not and make the NCAA Tournament? The record won’t answer that question yet, as 14-8 (5-4 in the SEC) does little to distinguish a team either way. One positive development for the resume is that many of their previous “good losses” have either stayed that way or improved, as games dropped to Michigan, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Arizona State won’t raise the pulse of any committee members. On the flip side for the Hawgs, the abolition of the SEC West in basketball a couple of years ago means the revamped schedule will not do them any favors the rest of the way — still on tap is another match-up with Florida in Gainesville, two games with Missouri, and a visit from Kentucky. Taking care of business elsewhere may not be enough – the Razorbacks would do well to win at least one of those four contests, at a bare minimum.
The fork in the road is now there, just as it was a year ago. Arkansas has proven capable of playing with the nation’s elite (especially at Bud Walton Arena), but a young and untested team could head in either direction. If BJ Young can continue his ascent into stardom and the athletic, active team around him maintains the disruptive energy they put on display tonight, the NCAA Tournament should be within reach for the first time since 2008. However, if nothing was learned from the travails of a year ago, the Bud Walton faithful may spend yet another March without basketball.