God-awful weather notwithstanding, last week wasn’t so bad in Razorbackland.
For one thing, Bret Bielema’s football staff cobbled one of those recruiting classes that seemed utterly modest until you squinted a little. What may not have been ranked among the country’s elite hauls was still eminently warranting praise because, to be blunt, it addressed some dire needs and did so in the kind of context that normally makes closing on prospects a nightmare. A program coming off its worst season in the modern era, on the heels of a hellish 2012 with a short-term goon at the helm, doesn’t commonly amass an incoming class meriting commendation.
Recruiting rankings are nebulous beyond description as a general rule, but at the risk of giving them credence at all, consider that programs with seven combined wins and a 13-game SEC losing skid aren’t all that likely to thrive on the first Wednesday in February. For Arkansas to secure the signatures of the likes of interior monsters like Bijhon Jackson, Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace keeps with Bielema’s philosophy, but swaying guys like JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards here from the state of Florida proves again that this staff will forge into challenging territory to locate playmakers.
There is, of course, the expectation that Jim Chaney will be under the edict to make the quarterback job open again this spring after Brandon Allen was perpetually underwhelming last fall. Again, critique the staff freely for some minor missteps last year, but 3-9 teams aren’t just lacking in one area. Allen wasn’t sharp, but he wasn’t given much in the way of perimeter assistance, either. Brandon Mitchell could have accepted another conversion back to receiver but left for NC State, Mekale McKay bolted to Louisville and Demitrius Wilson tore up a knee — maybe the influx of fresh targets will give the rising junior a degree of confidence next year that he wasn’t afforded in 2013, or maybe he will truly fall behind Rafe Peavey or his own brother in competition. Regardless of the outcome, there’s abundant cause to believe that the most important position on the field won’t again be the weakest for the Hogs this fall.
If this batch of football signees didn’t get you a little feverish about fall, at least the basketball team finally showed it isn’t quitting this spring. Bobby Portis gets all the credit for willing the squad to a narrow, ragged home win over an Alabama team that continues to be mysteriously awful under onetime coaching prodigy Anthony Grant. The 35-point outburst by the Little Rock Hall product was machinelike on a night when the rest of the team was a creaky mess of bricks and flatlined effort. It went in the books as a freshman record, topping Scotty Thurman’s two 34-point games from 1992-93, but what it may have also done is spurred a sagging team to get its collective arse in gear. Portis fought the battle against Bama nearly alone — and I don’t just mean that his 8 for 40-shooting teammates gagged out there, but also that the mid-week crowd was pitiful, too — and was at the height of his brilliance doing it. He took a total of 23 combined shots from the floor and the line, and nailed 20.
The immediate and direct evidence of that effect was on display Saturday at Vanderbilt. Against a thin Commodores team, the Hogs pushed tempo early and weathered Vandy’s usual barrage of long-range missiles. Kevin Stallings has astonishingly made this a competitive team in spite of having only seven scholarship players, and they rebuffed every single surge that Arkansas made in both halves … except the last one.
The Hogs trailed by multiple, whisper-thin margins in the waning minutes, having squandered yet another late lead, and then it once again became Rashad Madden’s moment. And the junior guard found three such moments: He answered one Vandy surge with a tying three, then hit another jumper in response to Kyle Fuller’s go-ahead shot for the Commodores. Finally, with about five seconds left and the Hogs down 75-74, Madden pierced the lane, elevated, and realized immediately that any bid for a shot was going to be nullified.
So he swung it out to a waiting Michael Qualls, who continued his pogo-stick season with another spring upward, elevating for a pretty 22-footer from the wing that put Arkansas in front with 2.6 seconds left. Vanderbilt got a great final look for gunner Rod Odom, but it glanced away, and there it was: a Razorback road win. It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that it seemed fraudulent, like maybe the officials were about to hatch a cruel joke at the end about the scoring being incorrect or that someone in the Hogs’ bizarro blue-grey jerseys got an obscure dead-ball technical foul for excess elation at a modern miracle.
Thus ended a few heartening, and hardly believable, days for the cardinal and white. Stick around for a few more days, because the mood can shift just like the climate.