Santa delivered the hoop Hogs a couple of early Christmas presents over the weekend and then again on Monday night: Wins.
Or maybe they were more like stocking stuffers. Really, that's about all we can take away from the matchups against Southeast Missouri and UW-Milwaukee. Playing lower(ish)-tier D-1 teams (and that's not meant to slight), what else can you take away?
Saturday night's Razorback game against SEMO at Verizon, at least, indeed was a little bit of a rock show. But Monday's, well, for lack of a better word, contest, in front of a few zombies at Bud Walton resembled more a bag of coal. But wins are wins, and a 30-point win looks good on paper despite how ugly it may have looked getting there.
The record is padded even if the RPI took a hit. As expected, the Hogs led each game wire to wire, but it took a little effort to pull away late in each and notch what amounted to easy wins.
One thing we can take away, sadly, is the sharp contrast between the crowds on Saturday in Little Rock and Monday in Fayetteville.
Not only was Verizon the biggest "home" crowd of the season for the Hogs so far, it had the buzz of a truly anticipated event. I know an announced crowd of just under 12,000 is nothing necessarily to write home about, certainly not for Arkansas basketball. Central Arkansas fans may not be filling Verizon to capacity for the annual December game, as they've done before, but there is at least a palpable buzz.
I haven't been to a game at Bud Walton yet this season, but have seen 'em all on TV, and have to ask: Has any buzz yet existed for any of the games in Fayetteville?
Given that we've made the big dance just three times in the last 14 years and were playing a lower tier D-1 directional school, and three hours from campus at that, Saturday's atmosphere in Argenta was pretty good. Of course, one could argue that "campus" for the Hogs entails any piece of hardwood lying within the borders of the state. But in today's mobile world of every-game-on-TV, actually getting bodies in seats isn't as easy as it used to be, and drawing in the neighborhood of 12 for SEMO was nice.
So why doesn't that argument hold up as well now for NWA? I can tell you this: If I lived 20 minutes from campus and could get tickets on the cheap, I'd be at every game. It's. The. Hogs.
The Milwaukee game at times felt like a scrimmage in a gym littered with hangers-on and cleaning crews. I'm going strictly on how it came across on TV, and I get that it's the holiday break and students aren't on campus. And I'm not expecting 15k for UALR-North three days before Christmas. But less than 8K? We wouldn't have filled Barnhill. The realization that NWA is beginning to take Razorback basketball for granted is settling in like an anvil to Wile E's noggin.
Vandy represents the first SEC home game on Jan. 10, and if it's not full or close, especially if we're somehow able to win in Athens, then we've got a problem. For a program with our pedigree, 10k should be the low bar regardless of opponent or date.
As for the actual games....I think some dummy recently referred to Dickey Nutt's SEMO squad as cupcakes from Cape Girardeau. Well, that bunch was game. Overmatched, of course, but game. The Redhawks (yet another tiresome Indian replacement nickname) didn't back down when things could've gotten out of hand much earlier, and they attacked the basket with gusto. In addition to walk-it-up teams with athletic bigs and shooters that force us to play a half-court game, quick, scrappy teams with aggressive guards who drive hard to the hoop make me nervous.
Hat tip to SEMO and the OVC, sort of a Missouri Valley Lite, from which it hails. A one-bid league, but its league champ usually is pretty good (see Murray, Belmont). And SEMO was picked third pre-season.
Milwaukee, which as a Horizon League school exists in roughly the same stratosphere as the OVC (really, it's an urban OVC), has a little tourney pedigree and to its credit forced a slow-paced, ugly affair, its only chance, and for 30 minutes or so that's what we got. (Oh, and UWM's Nets-style unis....sweet.) But the Hogs were never in any real trouble. It almost feels like we're biding our time in the kiddie pool, and it'll be that way for two more.
The road trip to Athens, where the Dawgs appear better than expected, will represent our dive back into the deep end.
Notes and observations from these last two, including from the cheap seats at Verizon on Saturday:
- Bobby Portis is just smooth as silk. Every aspect of his game. I think he's back for one more year. I hope so, anyway.
- Qualls...Well, Qualls reminds me of our 4-year-old black lab, Gracie. Athletic, often airborne and tongue always wagging. I'm being serious here...when he hitches a ride with a buddy, or even on the team bus, I envision him sticking his head out of the window.
- It's quite frankly visually painful to watch Jacorey Williams shoot or handle the ball. But I'll be dogged if the end result usually isn't good. (Same with Harris. I'd much rather him take a 3 than try to make a layup.)
- Eager to see more of freshman Nick Babb, who seems pretty smooth himself.
- There indeed was a little chippiness on Saturday night but nothing I could see warranting three T's. Calm down, blue.
- That image of Dickey sitting in front of the Razorback background post-game indeed was bizarro-world weird. That one calls for a game of "Fun with Parallel Universes."
- Speaking of, Dickey's big bro was in town for the game. Stationed in the area outside the home locker room while my youngest son and maybe 100 or so of central Arkansas' younger Hog fans gathered for autographs and pictures, who should saunter up other than one Houston Dale Nutt? It was after the initial rush and many of the folks had cleared out, but Houston (wearing a maroon sweater) walked up and immediately began hugging folks he knew and accepting requests for pictures and autographs. The man still has traction in this state.
- After the SEMO game, every Hog, whether he saw the court or not, was rushed by a mob of kids, one of mine included, coming out of the locker room. (Razorbacks are rock stars in this state.) But it was Portis, of course, who was most in demand. He must've signed close to 100 autographs and taken numerous pictures by the time T.J. Cleveland came over to tell him Chuck was waiting on the radio. With a decent size crush of kids remaining to be satiated - and I'm not exaggerating here, I was four feet away - Portis looked like a kid on Christmas morning told he had to stop playing with his new toys and get dressed for Grandma's. Five minutes after TJ's first gentle admonition, Portis promised those still waiting that he'd return. And he did.
Indeed, this group of Hogs is a likable bunch. Approachable and very much aware of its rock-star status and the responsibilities that come with it.
Two more "gimmes," then the fun begins in Athens. Let's hope there's something to like about our SEC chances after that Georgia game.