The Razorbacks roll into Lexington on Saturday with confidence and mo, and Kentucky fans surely will welcome the return of classic Hawgball.
Now, many members of Big Blue Nation surely are squirming a bit, the date with our band of gritty Hogs perhaps representing the biggest obstacle to regular season perfection. (True, Georgia seemingly has awakened and the Cats will find next week's trip to Athens a challenge.)
Saturday's matchup, however, has the feel of those top 5 affairs of old when we were the new money in the SEC -- Chenal to Kentucky's Country Club of Little Rock -- and I'd like to believe UK fans welcome the return of a suitable hoops rival, Florida of the 2000s notwithstanding.
And suitable we were, announcing ourselves as such right away, winning the league outright our first SEC season of 1991-92. The SEC gym no longer belonged to the bully in blue.
That season included a [huge win at Rupp and the following season provided a] 105-88 whipping of UK in Barnhill that etched some everlasting memories into Hog lore: The fantastic and trend-setting Hog Wild band serenading Rick Pitino from the old crow's nest with the Godfather theme as he walked onto the court to start the game; the massive and front-and-center student section chanting "Ole" with a coordinated matador motion every time UK's Gimel Martinez touched the ball; Darrell Hawkins atop press row after the game proudly displaying the "Razorbacks" across his chest.
The team wilting in the heat of the Barn that afternoon was the team of the Unforgettables, the quartet of UK fan favorites that included one John Pelphrey. That group earned its legend status by sticking with the program through turbulent times and returning the Cats to accustomed glory. And it was the team that lost in the Elite 8 to Christian Laettner's last second OT heave over none other than....yep, Pel.
Regular season champs, we headed to the SEC tourney in the old Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. (And yes, they used to hold the SEC basketball tournament in a convention center, the Legion Field of SEC hoops.) We polished off Georgia in the quarters only to lose improbably to Wimp Sanderson and Bama on a last second shot in the semis in what must've been an incredibly fun game to watch for anybody not bleeding cardinal.
The rematch with UK therefore was nixed, and the Cats pasted the Tide in the final to begin its run to the round of 8. But aside from establishing our habit of not finishing at the SEC tourney (which we broke once, in 2000), what's important about that tourney was our entrance.
Oh, that glorious entrance. It stands up there with our incineration of UT in the SWC championship game at Barnhill South in Dallas the year before, our SWC swan song, sung with 12,000 or so Hog fans chanting a chorus of SEC...SEC...SEC. (And Frank Broyles gesturing for Hog fans to stop although he must've secretly relished it.)
In Birmingham, about 8,000 or so Hogs fans came calling for our first SEC tourney, BJCC being a smaller venue than Reunion, and UK fans, unlike their counterparts in the SWC, gobbled up tickets. As they still do. But our showing that year was a big deal, because before we joined the family, and before Florida's run, SEC basketball was UK's chew toy. In fact, UK had the only fan base in the league that truly cared consistently about basketball, and basketball was the only sport about which it truly cared.
So much cardinal red in the crowd on the day of the quarters when the big boys opened was, well, a big deal. Perhaps even surreal for SEC old timers. The SEC now had two bona fide basketball schools. Because no other SEC school, to this day, places as much emphasis on basketball as Arkansas and Kentucky.
Can't remember who played before our opening game with Georgia at the league tourney that year, but at some point early in that game, Razorback players entered the arena in their warm-ups to watch a little of the game. And they were greeted with a rousing Hog call that shook not only the rafters of BJCC, but of the SEC establishment.
An SEC fan base was challenging UK for hoops supremacy, and that simply was not done.
The Jefferson-Pilot broadcast crew (which I'm pretty sure included Tim Brando) was impressed. Players on both teams in the dog of a game that was being played took notice. UK fans certainly did, and they possibly breathed a sigh of relief when Wimp's boys pulled the upset. (Arkansas-Alabama actually was a heck of a series back in the day.)
Arkansas-Kentucky would continue as a headliner for most of the '90s, the '95 game in Fayetteville that marked UK's first trip to BWA being scheduled for the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday. Literally, we were the lead in to the Super Bowl.
The Hogs, of course, eventually fell into a long drowse from which we appear to be waking while UK maintained its alpha status and through the 2000s fended off heir apparent Florida, itself now fading a bit.
But the hibernation feels done. The Kentucky game feels big time again. Oh, there've been scattered big Kentucky games since the late 90s, last year's included, but this is the first one in a long while that feels like two heavyweights entering the ring.
And SEC basketball needs Arkansas to join Kentucky as a CBB heavyweight. UK needs Arkansas to supply that annual push. On the court and in the stands. Ours is the only fan base that truly can challenge Big Blue Nation, and when we do, the entire SEC benefits.
The Bud Walton crowd of the first half against A&M Tuesday night was vintage. That's how BWA is supposed to sound. It affected A&M. And our first half play was classic Hawgball. Though the resilient and methodical Aggies may have done us a favor in the second half. They grounded to a degree what could've been a high-flying but potentially reckless act in Lexington.
We'll be better served by confidence tinged with humility and motivation fueled by the repair-mode mentality of going minus 20-plus on the boards. We've got a couple of things to shore up for UK, and maybe it's best that A&M reminded us.
Arkansas rolls into Rupp with nothing to lose and most importantly with the best team we've put on the court in 20 years. UK indeed may prove unbeatable this year, but this game feels like old times, and well, that just feels right.