Spring ushers in waves of pollen and lightning, for most Southern sports fans a turbulent, green bridge connecting the end of college basketball season with the warm towel wrap of summer.
Of course, by the start of summer, we've been gifted with the distribution of the preseason football mags, a mere hop to SEC media days in Hoover and another skip to the start of fall camp.
And then we jump into the real thing come September.
Of course, college baseball matters in Arkansas, too, as does spring football, and the two have kept Razorback fans busy in what might otherwise represent the beginning of an annual hibernation. (Try as I may, I just can't fully embrace MLB and while I'll always follow former Hogs in the league, I lost my connection to the NBA years ago.)
This April, a unique convergence of Hog football, basketball and baseball made for an interesting jambalaya. April means spring football, of course, and anticipation for the 2015 football season is as high as it's been since, well...2012. Uuuuum, ugh. OK. Not the best example.
This time, though, Razorback fans seem to have legitimate cause for optimism. Reserved, maybe, but genuine enthusiasm. More on football in a minute.
Basketball, of course, despite a second-round tourney exit, remained in the news into April because of the Portis-Qualls Watch. Sigh....Can't blame ‘em. If Apple came calling to the Walton College of Business, what underclassman wouldn't leave prior to graduation for a high-paying job? I just hope Qualls hasn't signed his ticket to the D-League or overseas, and he may have. But the young man has a family to feed, and life's priorities sometimes transcend Sportscenter Top 10s.
Portis will be playing in NBA arenas beginning next fall, and no one begrudges him the decision to go pro. What makes it tough for Hog fans, aside from the hit Mike Anderson's team will take next season, is the realization that Portis will never have his jersey hung from the rafters of Bud Walton. Two years is just not enough time to build a body of work worthy of it.
One more year, and a decent NCAA run, probably would've done it. But Portis will have to settle for simply being one of our more beloved Hogs, and one of the more gifted. Just like Joe Johnson. And like Joe, we'll proudly claim him and root for whichever team he ends up with.
Qualls, I think, could've benefited from another year. But we're not privy to the intel with which he made his decision, revealing to him it was time to go. Like Portis, Qualls is one of my fav all-time Hogs, and again -- I would never begrudge either of them, or any Razorback, the opportunity to make money playing the sport they love. And Qualls certainly carried the team late in the season like a man ready for the NBA.
But their departure means the team's gonna take a hit next year, let's be honest. It may not be as big a step back as we think, but we won't be the preseason top 10, 15 team we could've been with our full complement of returning players.
Still, I eagerly await Jimmy Whitt's arrival on campus, Moses Kingsley's offensive development, Anton Beard's new leadership role and Jabril Durham's evolution. All that, indeed, I eagerly await. Here's hoping we're not waiting still next spring. The impact on next year's team aside, the toughest thing about Portis and Qualls leaving is the diminished legacy their departure leaves behind. And that's something each had to weigh as part of his decision.
All said, Arkansans will have one and hopefully two new NBA teams to follow and cheer for next season. So, thank you, Bobby and Michael. Enjoy the ride.
The third ingredient to our little April jambalaya has been those amazing Diamond Hogs. Wow. What else can one say after the A&M series win? Just...wow.
Anderson's bunch showed plenty of grit this winter, but Dave Van Horn seems to will it into his players. So close in so many big games and struggling to find a mid-week rhythm, the late-blooming Hogs have gone from NCAA bubble - at best - to comfortably in and poised to make further noise. Of course, that's all we've done just yet - place ourselves in position to do some things.
Four SEC series to go; the race ain't over. But it's amazing what a little pitching and timely hitting can do. The Hogs rocked A&M's ace on Sunday, and it felt good. College Station did not see the second half of that series coming. 23 runs? The Aggies had allowed 5 runs in a game just a handful of times all year. I'll say it again: Wow.
Again, we've just hit the 7th inning stretch, but it's looking good. Baum should be humming for the boys from Stark Vegas this weekend.
Which brings us to...the Red-White game. Yeah, I know, spring ball is spring ball. I get it. But it's Razorbacks in full pads on a football field, and that's enough for me. And heading into year 3, Bret Beliema appears to have his system firmly in place, and the momentum coming off the Texas Bowl win can't be overestimated. The Hogs in 2015 should truly resemble those powerful Wisconsin teams of the 2000s: Strong on both lines, a smash-mouth run game, solid if not an outright spectacular defense. Steady (if not spectacular) fifth-year senior QB.
Sound familiar? The big question remains our ability to stretch the field. I think Dan Enos will find ways to do it, and I think we have the young talent on campus to make it happen.
Can we take the next step and compete for an SEC West title? It sure feels like we're set up to do so. For now, we can enjoy the nervous anticipation that accompanies expectations, and come fall, we'll find out if we were ready. Come fall, we'll see how much progress has been made.
But on Saturday, we can sit back, relax, call 'em and enjoy the obvious progress. We're clearly better, much better, and deeper, and we're operating from a solid foundation. The significance of that, alone, can't be overstated.
But 2014 bowl record notwithstanding, this is the SEC West.
We'll earn whatever we get.