Hogs are on right track

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Much of my career has been spent working as a sports journalist, and so while I understand that there are far more important concerns than athletics, I hope you will indulge me every now and then if I turn to sports as a column topic.

Today, I would like to discuss the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team, which is coming off a 17-point loss on Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

As a former sportswriter, I absolutely despise it when someone describes a game as "closer than the score indicated," or the converse "not as close as the score indicated."

In this case, though, I suppose it is quite accurate to say this game was nowhere near as close as the final 17-point margin.

In fact, I'll confess something: I stopped watching about midway through the second half, after Kentucky converted a steal into a quick three-pointer that put the Wildcats ahead by 31 points, at 78-47.

At that point, I knew there was no way that Arkansas could possibly make the game competitive. And even though the Razorbacks outscored Kentucky by 14 points the rest of the way, make no mistake: This game was never competitive.

Of course, it should be pointed out that the victory improved Kentucky's record to 29-0 for the season. The Wildcats are seeking to become the first undefeated NCAA Division I champions since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. That's a tall order, but based on the Wildcats' performance against Arkansas they may very well be up to the challenge.

As for Arkansas, in one sense Saturday's game was a barometer for the Razorbacks -- a chance to measure themselves against college basketball's elite, to see how far they have come and how far they still have to go if they want to return to the glory days of the early and mid-'90s.

In another sense, though, Arkansas fans should be careful to keep Saturday's game in perspective. Yes, it was a humbling loss. But Kentucky is capable of doling out humbling losses to a lot of teams -- and even capable of administering far worse beatings than the Razorbacks endured. The fact is that this Arkansas team has a record of 23 victories against six losses. The Razorbacks should be a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament, and Coach Mike Anderson is rebuilding the program the right way.

Nolan Richardson's great teams were built around defense, balance and depth. Those Razorbacks ran wave after wave of pressing, ball-hawking athletes at their opponents. They scored countless easy baskets off opponents' turnovers and made it impossible for those opponents to focus their defense on a single player.

This Arkansas team is not there yet, but the pieces are beginning to fall into place. It's not hard to imagine the Razorbacks getting back to the elite level in the near future under Anderson.

One thing I must say I appreciate about Anderson is that he is able to duplicate much of what made Richardson a successful coach, without the bitter vitriol that ultimately led to Richardson's departure from the University of Arkansas.

The public's view of Richardson seems to have softened a great deal over the years, but the reality is that he was in many ways an overbearing bully. He was able to get away with that as long as his teams were winning, but when the Razorbacks began to slip back toward mediocrity late in his career, that all caught up to him.

At any rate, Anderson seems set to follow his mentor's success on the court -- Kentucky notwithstanding.

* * *

Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers.