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Little Rock Remains Important for Razorback Basketball

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Verizon, like Barton and Pine Bluff back in the day, should be rocking.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Nolan Richardson, with Mike Anderson's perhaps underappreciated help, took Razorback basketball to glorious new heights and deserves his status as one of Razorback sports' true Rushmore figures.

But let's not forget it was Eddie Sutton who took a moribund program that played on the sawdust of old Barnhill Fieldhouse and rallied a state around what once had been nothing more than an afterthought that helped fill the months between football season and spring practice.

The Razorbacks used to play several home basketball games a season outside of Fayetteville, out of pure necessity, a couple each in Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Barton Coliseum and Pine Bluff Convention Center, bless their hearts, served important roles in an age where the only access most Arkansans had to non-conference Razorback basketball was the radio call and maybe six or seven KATV broadcasts if we were lucky.

No Internet, no Watch ESPN, no 24-hour sports cable.

The Hogs therefore needed to extend their reach to a state starved for Razorback success, and post-Triplets expectant of it. Had El Dorado, Texarkana, Jonesboro or even Helena been able, the Hogs probably would've played there too. The state's team and all, you know.

With the Hogs in town for Saturday night's scrimmage against Little Rock native Dickey Nutt and his cupcakes from Cape Girardeau, it feels good to hear that a crowd of anywhere from 12-16,000 is expected at Verizon Arena.

As of Friday afternoon, the upper bowl was filling up, perhaps more evidence that the state is embracing Anderson's rebuild and recognizes its imminent resurface.

The crowds at Bud Walton this season, on the other hand, have been modest. Oh, 90 percent of all other D-1 schools would kill for 9,000 on any day, and the Hogs remain a top 15-ish school in terms of hoops attendance.

Still, I'd hoped for more bodies against name teams like Wake Forest and Dayton and to a lesser degree, Iona. Thanksgiving weekend surely impacted Iona, but I can't imagine what kept folks away for Dayton and Wake.

I know crowds of 14, 15 will return for SEC play, and it'll fill up for the big games. I think we take for granted how hard it is to draw 19,000 night after night in a region that continues to grow but remains under half a million. (And many of those moving in are Wal-Mart transplants doing so from Big 10 country. Therefore, not Hog fans. That's something Jeff Long may soon need to address.)

And for weeknight games, NWA has to be responsible for filling BWA. It's just not feasible for fans south of the tunnel to make it up and drive back down the hill midweek.

Back when Coach Broyles announced plans to build what would become Bud Walton, I was proud and excited even if heartbroken at saying good-bye to Barnhill. But inside, I knew 20k would be a high bar to sustain, even if we were able to maintain a top 5 program, which of course we weren't.

Bottom line, though, even as we settled into a rut of mediocrity over the last dozen years, we remained a top 20 draw. (Which we are in football and baseball as well, and surely would be in track too.)

But the palpable excitement in Little Rock for what should amount to a throw-away game Saturday night is satisfying. In this era of fans watching from the comfort of home over multiple channels, not to mention the rising costs associated with actual game attendance, it's good to see central Arkansas continue to get up for the Hogs regardless of record or opponent.

Entertainment distractions exist in droves these days, and the Hogs need to remain distraction No. 1 in all four corners. This year, of course, the Hogs are showing signs of true Hawg Ball, and that along with the return of hometown hero Bobby Portis is helping draw fans to Verizon.

SEMO begins a run of four holiday tune-ups before we open SEC play at Georgia. Clemson hiccup notwithstanding, the Hogs appear positioned to make a long-awaited run at the big dance, and Hog fans from Texarkana to Helena are excited.

Verizon, like Barton and Pine Bluff back in the day, should be rocking.