Talking Arkansas Basketball, NCAA Tournament Chances, & Last Thoughts on Bielema and Death Certificates

Because Mike's red blazer deserves so much more love - Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Between Razorback basketball having a real shot at the NCAA bubble and Bielema's most recent national outrage, we thought it would be a good time for another Arkansas Fight Panel Discussion!

1. The basketball team has now won 5 of their last 6 games, and the one loss was just by one point. What have you seen as the biggest difference compared to January?

Drew A: Honestly, I don't want to lose my reputation with a over simplistic answer, but with that being said my answer is Qualls. He was Arkansas' best player for the entirety of non conference and then he just disappeared when conference play began. He's back to being the guy now and it's a big deal.

Scottie: I'm with Drew A. Michael Qualls' reemergence for Arkansas' offense has been huge, especially the last couple of games when Ky Madden has been a bit off. Coty Clarke has been big for Arkansas, also. He's been in double figures four of his last five games, and the game did didn't, he grabbed nine boards and dished out seven assists. His leadership has been big. Mardracus Wade, another senior, has impressed me a lot recently, as well. And if Ky gets it figured out (he's just had a couple of games where he's looked a bit off), then look out. it seems like we're really gelling as a team.

Ryan: The attitude adjustment suspensions Qualls and Harris received opened their eyes and got them back focused on winning. Both are much more productive since their suspensions.

Kevin: Dare we say they've grown in mental toughness? I would like to think so. So many possible factors. I'll leave it to those with more basketball IQ to be more specific. It could also be just Lady Luck and the roll of the ball on the rim have gone more in our favor than not as compared to the beginning of the season. Then again, you make your own luck, right?

Adam: Luck? It's hard for me to say we've "changed"...still. We're definitely starting to gel together, but the road is still long and I'm not sure we have what it takes to finish off the season at the current winning pace we're currently seeing.

Drew F: They're finally learning to close on the road, which is something they couldn't do at Georgia or Tennessee.  But, to echo Kev, there may just be some "luck" to it - after all, we were awfully close to starting the season at 4-1 instead of 1-4.

Randy: The schedule got easier. That was the major change. We saw a huge difference, though, between the first road game (abysmal loss to a bad Texas A&M team) and the last one (should have beaten Missouri). The team has reached the point where it can function on the road. Excel, no, not there yet.

Graham: I'll give credit to Mike Anderson and his staff. While I am still befuddled by a couple of their late-game decisions, the team has added a sense of mental toughness. Yes, Kevin. Dare to say it. In previous seasons and even in certain games earlier this season, this team has folded. Hopefully they keep playing with the attitude that they know they are better than most of their competition.

Doc: Simplistic answer is that they're making shots now. From Texas A&M through Alabama, Arkansas only shot better than 40% twice. Since Alabama they've only been below 40% one time. Big part of that is Qualls' resurgence, but they're also getting more out of Mardracus Wade and Alandise Harris. And they don't win against Mississippi State if Anthlon Bell doesn't break out. So that's the basic answer: make more shots, win more games.

2. How do you see these last three weeks (regular season + SEC Tournament) shaping up?

Adam: I want to be a homer and say 3-1, but I'm thinking more of 2-2. We're playing the best basketball we have of the season, but so are some of our upcoming opponents. We're going to need everyone to have a great game, not just one or two picking up the slack from our normal contributors.

Graham: Record-wise I think they finish 2-2 with a loss tomorrow night and one other against inferior opposition because at its core, sadly, that's where we are as a program right now. The SMU win is looking better and better each week and following a couple of wins in Atlanta could be swing game that sends the Hogs dancing.

Drew A: I think you're looking at a 3-1 or 2-2 scenario. Kentucky is going to be tough. At the end of the day I see them as outside looking in come tourney time, but that doesn't mean I don't have major beef with Tennessee being 'in' as of now. Doesn't make sense.

Randy: The most likely outcome is two home wins, two road losses, and a middling position in the SEC Tournament. That would mean opening against someone like Vanderbilt or Texas A&M. If the Hogs have no better answer for slow tempo, they will lose their first game in the SECT the way they have for five years in a row. The road finale at Alabama is very important to set the tone in March.

Scottie: I say we go 2-1 heading into the Alabama game to close out the season. I honestly believe the finale will decide Arkansas' fate. I say this because Missouri went into Alabama, had an off night to say the least and got beat pretty handily. And we've seen this happen to Arkansas way too often. It can't happen again if they want in. I'm not making a prediction on the game. I stopped doing that after the Florida game. As far as the conference tournament, it all depends on the seed they receive. We are more capable of winning a game or two in Atlanta than we have been in years past, though.

Ryan: Before the season started I wrote that the Hogs would go 11-7 in SEC play and go to the NIT. It is looking more like 10-8/9-9, but the NIT is still where they are headed.

Drew F: I think closing out the regular season with a 3-1 record is a reasonable expectation, obviously losing at Kentucky.  The SEC tournament is still a wild-card; our showing at Maui and wins at Vandy and Starkville proved we're capable of competing away from BWA this season, but a bad showing in the opening round game is always possible. I think an NCAA berth depends on a deep run in the SECT, but are we capable?

Kevin: I don't see us winning at Kentucky, though I think we'll play hard. Georgia and Ole Miss, I think we win. We could still lose on the road to Alabama. Just because we have two road wins, that doesn't make us road warriors.  You know, with the Hogs, it wouldn't shock me if they did beat Kentucky and then lost to Alabama. Just win an SEC Tournament game, guys, come on. Too many years of one and done.

Doc: Even if they lose at Kentucky they've still got a shot. Every game's a big game at that point as long as they win. The Georgia game on Saturday is huge regardless what happens in Lexington. Hogs are at home but Georgia will have two extra days of rest since they played Tuesday night and Arkansas plays on Thursday. It's a must-win for Arkansas. But they all are if they lose to Kentucky.

3. As of right now, do you think this season constitutes as progress for the basketball team?

Ryan: Good Lord yes there has been great progress. The last two coaches Arkansas had never won a game in Starkville. He is the only coach in school history to win at least 18 games in his first three seasons. I think even Stevie Wonder can see the progress between year one and year three.

Scottie: You're blind if you haven't seen any progress. Last year's team would have found a way to blow the Miss. State game. We're starting to become mentally stronger, I believe. And that's great to see.

Adam: Unquestionably. Is it the amount of progress most want? Not at all. Rome wasn't built in a day. Or three years.

Kevin: I want to see us in the post-season before I will call this season progress. And, of course, I include the NIT in that. We need to be back to where we more or less expect to go the NCAA tournament each year. That would be major progress. But, I would settle for the NIT this year. If we end up not in any tournament, then another year in neutral is how it would feel to me.

Graham: Progress is making the NCAA tournament. What may happen over the next three weeks notwithstanding, this team hasn't suffered devastating injuries or true setbacks -- other than self-inflicted suspensions and lowering expectations shouldn't be tolerable just because they won some road games.

Drew F: Progress? Yes. But it's not totally out of line to see this season as a disappointment, either, considering where we'd be right now if we could have pulled out wins against Florida, at Tennessee and Georgia, and both Mizzou games, all of which were in reach late in the game.

Doc: I really like that answer. They've improved in a lot of areas but they still have let so many opportunities slip away. If they don't make the NCAA Tournament you can point to December's schedule and January's lost chances at why they're not dancing.

Drew A: I think you have to be encouraged. People talk about Mike's "third" year being his big year, and that's true at UAB and Missouri, but this team only has 2 true Anderson recruiting classes. He had to come in and keep that 2011 class together, despite some players not being schematic fits. Madden is currently the only player still on the team from that class. I think you see a monster jump next year when the entire team is Anderson players.

Randy: Given that 2013 ended with a bad Razorback basketball team, yes, this season has shown progress. The guards as a group were never going to be enough to make the system click on either end of the court. Mike Anderson still needs a lot of help in the backcourt.


4. Coach Bielema found himself in hot water again late last week with the "death certificates" fiasco. Were you defensive? Angry? Embarrassed? Indifferent? Something else?

Drew A: "Death certificates" was a stupid stupid thing to say, but I thought the rest of his statement was solid. It's a bummer that people will gloss over about 10 minutes of dialogue and only look at 2 words, but that's the world we live in.

Ryan: Is this really new to Arkansas?

"Smile!" - John L. Smith

*Hey coach, were you alone on the bike?* "Yeah." -Bobby Petrino

"I called that play, Chuck." -Houston Nutt (thousands more of those types of quotes)

"Pay me my money, I'll leave." -Nolan Richardson

I could keep going, but you get the point. I don't think that kid's death had anything to do with the HUNH debate and should have never been mentioned. I have no pity for Bielema because the phrase "death certificates" was clearly premeditated. He got a reaction, just not the one he expected. I'd think #NeverYield would be a big supporter of HUNH.

Adam: He was out of line, without a doubt. But embarrassed? Not at all. We talked in-depth about this on the latest Hog Trough Fancast and we ruffled some feathers in the process.

Scottie: I was embarrassed because it's more negative attention on the program. I then facepalmed and thought, "oh, God, Bert. No. No. No. No. C'mon, dude."

Kevin: Embarrassed sounds about right. It didn't look all that great before the season started that he was complaining about this issue; it sure doesn't look good after a 3-9 season. Coaches who go 3-9 in their first year probably should do more listening and thinking than speaking, as a rule.

Graham: Embarrassed for Bert and how this will negatively affect his image as a coach and recruiter. Also, it can't be a good image to give off to your boss, who has led an athletic department through the death of a football player.

Drew F: Mostly indifferent, for a variety of reasons. Especially now that he's apologized.

Doc: He didn't apologize. He even confirmed the fact that he didn't apologize for what he said. I was embarrassed and angry not because what I thought he said was insensitive but because it was so egregiously incorrect. He's drawn a very public and very unpopular line in the sand on this pace of play issue, and to cite death certificates for players who died for nothing affiliated with HUNH is ridiculous.

Like I wrote in my column, if he's truly afraid his players will die if he can't sub them out of a football game, he shouldn't let them play football.

Randy: It's better for my health if I don't pay attention to Bielema's life away from Razorback Stadium. I suggest you try it too.

5. This isn't the first time people all over the country have mocked/derided Bielema since coming to Arkansas just for things he's said. Does this put added pressure on him to get Arkansas back to respectability more quickly than otherwise?

Randy: No, it is of little relevance. Bad football is much more of a problem.

Drew A: The pressure, "death certificates" or not, was already on. This is the SEC. Win or go home.

Ryan: Bert is going to keep Berting like Haith is going to keep Haithing. There isn't anything anyone can do about it. Jeff Long doesn't seem upset by the comments and that's his boss. However, Arkansas has always found ways to fire people for things not related to the field or court, so you never know.

Scottie: Yes. The pressure is on him, even more than it was after going winless in conference play. But winning cures a lot of things. He just needs to win. If he doesn't, things might get ugly.

Adam: Who is BERT trying to please? Worry about the people that matter and who pays is check. Forget about the rest. #BeUncommon

Drew F: No, I don't think so.  It's a big deal right now because there's very little else to talk about.  I liken his comments to Gordon Gee's - and those have mostly been forgotten about.

Kevin: More pressure? Well, making yourself and by extension the University of Arkansas look bad doesn't take pressure off of you, for sure. The pressure is already there. And it will mount with each bad season (if that is what continues). What Bielema needs is some good recruiting classes. And I don't think this recent comment, as sincere as he might be about player safety, really attracts top SEC talent.  An opposing recruiter says, "You want to go play with that whining coach at Arkansas?"

Graham: Stewart Mandel's column wasn't a fun read for most Arkansas fans, but I think it paints an accurate picture of how much of the country outside of the state views the leadership of the program.

Doc: That's a great point. I think his perception outside of Arkansas is really bad. The debate I think a lot of Arkansas fans are having since this broke out is how much does that matter?  If he wins, it doesn't at all. If he continues to lose, things like this, #karma, normal American football, and the like won't help him at all. People will be much less forgiving of a coach who not only loses, but causes pr disasters in the process, than of one that's still roundly respected. So it all hinges on whether or not he wins.

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