It is beautiful here today. The sun is warm and friendly. Winter’s leaves still blanket the ground, crackling under-hoof as a handful of deer lazily nibble their way through the woods in my back yard. My screen door is open and I can hear birds shuffle along the ground and then flitter away when spooked by unseen enemies. From my Razorback red Laz-y-boy I can see my cat, Louie the 3rd, stalk an arrogant squirrel. College basketball is flickering on 3 tvs here in my man cave.
But something just isn’t right.
Please don’t take this as a call for a coach’s head. I am not qualified in either basketball or business to make that sort of decision. This is simply a lament, an attempt to express the feelings of an Arkansas basketball fan at what should be a most joyous time of year.
Missouri is playing Clemson as I write this. You probably guessed that. For the past 8 or so years folks like me have alternated between the sheer joy of watching a Mike Anderson coached team lay it on the line in the NCAA tourney and the vague ache of watching our own past drift farther and farther out of our grasping hands, a past that we cannot regain.
Mizzou isn’t a great team. They are barely even good. Every starter for Arkansas would easily start on this Missouri team. Clemson is better at every position.
Before the game Oliver Purnell, the very capable Clemson coach, said that he had a pressing team too, so his team was well prepared to handle the Mizzou defensive attack. Really? Missouri had 2 steals in the first minute.
The thing is this, no team anywhere has ever played the way Nolan’s and Anderson’s teams play. None, zero, zilch.
UNIQUE. That is the word I am looking for. It is an overused and often misused word. It requires no modifiers. “Very Unique” is oft heard and quite meaningless. Unique means one of a kind. There is no “very” about it. And that is what the Mike Anderson style of basketball is. One of a kind. Unique.
I guess that is the essence of what we miss about the old days. It isn’t the national title runs so much, although that is certainly a part. It is the sense that we, that OUR team and by extension ARKANSANS (in reality or in spirit), are UNIQUE.
Isn’t that what is so important about family, about wives and husbands and children and parents? Isn’t it the fact that those relationships are singular? It is in those relationships, and maybe ONLY in those relationships, that we are recognized as the one of a kind people that we are – massive warts and all.
For most of Nolan’s tenure (And even Nolan backed off his traditional style in later years, trying to adapt to his personnel. This was perhaps his fatal error, losing his identity) there was noone like us. The name ARKANSAS meant something in college basketball, both good and bad. People dreaded playing us.
I remember watching the NCAA selection show in ‘96. It was the year AFTER our 2nd finals appearance and we just weren’t very good. In fact we were probably the last at-large team to get a bid. We were starting 5 freshman for goodness sake. ( Kareem Reid, Pat Bradley, Derek Hood, Marlon Townes etc. ) Jesse Pate and Sunday Adebayo had been lost earlier in the year.
ESPN was focusing on Penn State. They had just finished a surprising season and hadn’t been to the tourney in years so they were a feel good story. The camera caught the players and fans crowded in a large room, cheering wildly when their name showed up on the bracket as a 4 seed. Just as dramatic as the cheers was the deafening silence seconds later when their opponent’s name popped up. Arkansas. Bang!
They were whipped before we played them. We scrambled and stole and slapped our way to the sweet 16. That was FUN.
It isn’t that we were always so good or so dominant in those years. There were lean times. And Mike A’s teams have hardly been dominant. It is more the fact that a team that played like our Hogs used to, that played a committed style of ball like Mike Anderson teams always do, has more than a punchers chance. If you sit down to watch Mizzou play a higher seed you may end up watching them get whipped. But you can look forward to the game with anticipation because Mike A’s team may just put a hurt on them, strangle them, choke them, embarrass them like UAB did to Kentucky and LSU a few years ago in separate NCAA tourneys.
My cat has taken a beating from the squirrel. He is licking his paws and scratching his back on a stump. Clemson is fading and Mizzou is up 10.
There are arguments against being a pressure team, some of them valid. It is difficult to recruit to such a system, it can be tough on the road, it can look plain sloppy at times. But the fact is that it will ALWAYS be hard to recruit nationally and nearly all of our NBA level players have hailed from Arkansas or an hour drive either way. And it is ALWAYS tough on the road – in any system. And I can’t imagine anything sloppier than the atrocious ball that has been played here 5 of the last 8 years.
I guess my point is this. Arkansas basketball is unique. We will not thrive unless we embrace that, unless we embrace the people and the styles that made us great.
I know sports are meaningless in the big picture. But so is music and art and books and dance. These things are meaningless but they have extraordinary value.
In my mind I can see the future. The Arkansas Basketball program will reflect something about us. It will be wild and scrappy. We will dominate at home. Opponents will whine about the refs. Announcers will mention in amazement that Arkansas hd 25 steals in the previous game. We will win games before they are played because we instill fear. In lean years we will struggle but still make tournament noise and in those years when a big time player or two rises from the local high school ranks we will push for it all. We will be unique. And we will be led by one of our own. One who gave 19 largely thankless years to this place. One who, when his time finally came here, was dismissed by nearly all (including me) with a thanks but no thanks and a condescending pat on the back. We will be led by one of ours, unique just like us.
Louie the cat is asleep now and this gorgeous day is a hint more cool than warm. Louie stretches and yawns and goes back to sleep, dreamless and satisfied. I think there might be a speck of blood at the corner of his mouth. A sneaky one that Louie is.
Clemson is desperate now, fouling and jacking, dead on their feet. Missouri will play again Sunday. They will be a big underdog but they will have a puncher’s chance.
And I will be in my chair. Watching and cheering. Not sure how to feel.