With each delicious, passing win, with every first-time-X-has-happened since 199X, it seems like Arkansas is really, truly getting back to the elite standing it had during those now so well-bannered Glory Years. While last season's squad - also so scalding in February - finished its season with an almost Pelphraic whimper, it’s hard to imagine this more seasoned bunch doing the same.
But what does it mean for the Razorback basketball program to be "back"? Many of us know what "national relevance" feels like when you have it, but what's the final step in breaking through to that point? Can it be done in the regular season, or do those words only carry true weight when applied to postseason success?
I recently asked Michael Qualls questions along these lines for SLAM. The Hogs’ second-leading scorer believes Arkansas basketball will have broken through "when we have the respect that I feel like that we deserve. Because, right now, it’s still not quite there." Qualls believes on a national scale, other programs’ fan bases acknowledge Arkansas has "a great duo, but [believe] they’ve got a better team." Like the rest of us, Qualls hears and knows Arkansas is "heading in a better direction." He’s ready for the moment "when everybody starts saying we are not heading in the right direction, but we are there. That’s when we’re gonna be there. When you say, without a doubt, that Arkansas is one of the best teams, that’s when we will be finally be there."
Naturally, this entire process will go into hyperdrive if Arkansas ruins Kentucky’s chances for an historic 40-0 season. The braintrust at ESPN’s Five Thirty Eight has calculated the likelihood of Kentucky to be upset in their final four regular season games to be to be 26%. Qualls, for one, is very confident the Razorbacks will do it during Saturday’s 3 p.m. showdown at Kentucky. Yes, Qualls has been a little gimpy as of late, and is coming off his worst offensive showing of the season, but Arkansas still has legit swagger on its side. No other team can boast of beating Kentucky three times in a row. "We come with that edge every year," Qualls said. "Since I have been here, we haven’t lost to them. So, to us, we’re the better team. We’re the top dogs. Not to shy away from what they do, because they are one of the best basketball teams in the country every year."
Arkansas, no doubt, is on a roll. It's won seven games in a row heading into Lexington and has the second-best odds to win the 2015 NCAA Tournament among SEC teams. While Kentucky has eight active McDonald's All-Americans, and Arkansas has one, Qualls feels like his team has the potential to receive just as many accolades on the collegiate level. "I feel like we have five or six players on our team that could be in the top 15 in the SEC, on the first team, second team, third team. Of course, they're probably not gonna be, but skill-wise, potential-wise - what they could do if they played more minutes, if they took more shots."
Conference honors won't be a problem for Arkansas' "other" players if the likes of Rashad Madden, Anton Beard and Moses Kingsley step up to have big games alongside Portis and a (presumably more healthy) Qualls on Saturday. This would be the program's biggest regular season win this century, and could potentially send the NBA Draft stock of a few Hogs soaring. For more of the exclusive interview with Qualls, visit SLAMOnline.com here.
Follow Bentonville-based writer Evin Demirel on Twitter or his blog, where he talks to Mike Anderson about one of strangest box scores in SEC basketball history.