One Christmas growing up, I discovered where my Mom was hiding presents. I'd let it be known that one of the things I wanted was the Double Dragon II video game for Nintendo. When I discovered a package underneath my parents' chest of drawers, sure enough, it was Double Dragon II. I was excited but it was still several days before Christmas, and i didn't want to tell anyone I found it and risk it getting taken back in favor of something I wasn't expecting nor wanted like an educational video game. Or, heaven forbid, a dictionary. When Christmas finally came, I opened the game and feigned appropriate surprise, but even though the present and the game were exactly what I expected, Christmas morning was somewhat of a letdown because there was no surprise and there is no excitement in simply meeting basic expectations.
That's basically how I feel about the 2011-12 Razorback basketball team. Now that the regular season is over, I have to admit, I'm disappointed. I'm pretty sure it's unfair to feel that way considering youth, injuries, coaching transition, preseason predictions, etc, but I am.
Expectations weren't exactly high for the Hogs entering the season. The media picked Arkansas sixth in the conference, and that was before Marshawn Powell was lost for the season after only playing in two games. The Razorbacks ended up finishing eighth, with a 6-10 record. And when you say it like that, it sounds about right.
But I was in Bud Walton Arena for several games this season. I was there for many of the non-conference blowouts in November and December. When the Hogs entered conference play with an 11-3 record, most folks probably didn't expect a lot because the best team Arkansas had beaten at that point was, well, take your pick of the cupcakes.
But on January 7th, Arkansas welcomed a ranked-at-the-time Mississippi State squad to Fayetteville and handed them a 98-88 defeat. Suddenly, people were starting to take notice of the young Hogs. Two weeks later, Arkansas hosted Michigan and put on a show. The Razorbacks led the entire game, and survived a missed last second three point attempt to claim the victory on national television. Arkansas then survived at home against Auburn, and then played their best road game of the year in a losing effort against Alabama. Despite the loss, optimism was prevalent because the Hogs were clearly making progress. On National Signing Day Eve, Vanderbilt visited Bud Walton Arena and a second-half run pushed the Razorbacks past the Commodores 82-74.
Now Arkansas is 16-6, 4-3 in conference, and the Hogs had several winnable games coming up. Winnable road games at LSU and Georgia followed by hosting South Carolina with big RPI games coming up like road games at Tennessee and Mississippi State and a home game against Florida. Everything was set up for Arkansas to make a run to the post season. And why not? They'd already beaten some of the toughest teams on the schedule. If the Hogs could get to 20 wins and make the tournament, some were saying Mike Anderson should be in the Coach of the Year conversation.
Well, as was the theme of the featured speech at my college graduation, life is what happens when you've made other plans. The calendar turned to February and the bottom completely fell out. Those winnable road games at Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi State? The Hogs lost by 22, 19, and 20 points. And when Florida came to Fayetteville, Arkansas lost by 30. Each of those games was over by halftime. Even when Arkansas hosted Alabama, who had suspended their two best players, the Razorbacks went nearly 10 minutes without scoring and lost by 11. The Hogs hosted Ole Miss and had a 15 point lead with 13 minutes to go in the game. The players seemed to think the game was over as the Rebels put together a quick 11-0 run in just over three minutes, and the Rebels won by two points after scoring with 8.2 seconds left.
The February highlights for the program were finally winning a road game against Auburn, Brandon Mitchell's dunk against Ole Miss, and premiering the 40 Minutes of Hell ESPN documentary after the South Carolina game. Arkansas went 2-7 in February and the one regular season game in March. A team with NCAA tournament aspirations going into February may not even make the NIT. Yes, I'm disappointed in that.
The most frustrating thing about many of these losses is that Arkansas wasn't even competitive most of the time. A breakdown of this nature is caused by more than just freshmen hitting the wall. College players in this day and age are used to playing year round between their high school and AAU teams. BJ Young was generally considered Arkansas' best player going down the stretch. He scored 31 points in the Florida loss. It was a team collapse.
You can always ask what would have happened with this team if Marshawn Powell had been healthy, or if Rotnei Clarke and Glen Bryant hadn't transferred. The Razorbacks did have a short bench this season, and the up-tempo style may have zapped the whole team of energy by the end. Ultimately, Arkansas ended up close to where most people thought they would and showed flashes of brilliant potential for the next few years. So it's probably unfair to be disappointed, but I am. It feels like it could have and should have been better.
Arkansas plays LSU in the first round of the 2012 SEC tournament on Thursday, and Arkansas hasn't won a game in that tournament since John Pelphrey's first year. So just winning that game will help a tad. We'll see what happens in New Orleans.
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