As I craft this week’s Pearls, the news that Arkansas sophomore wunderkind Bobby Portis was correctly tabbed SEC Player of the Year has crept across my metaphorical ticker (i.e., Facebook news feed, blissfully interrupting the already-welcome public reproach being foisted upon our buffoonish freshman U.S. senator’s hate mail campaign), and I’m quite relieved. That tidbit gets this column off to a much more pleasant start than I anticipated.
Portis, no doubt, earned the honor. In fact, the fear in recent weeks has been that in a year with Kentucky mowing down opposition in near-historic fashion, there would be an inescapable impulse among the voters to bestow such accolades on a Wildcat. Of course, the name that was drawing the most buzz was Willie Cauley-Stein, the angular center for Kentucky who undoubtedly impacts the game at both ends, but is a marginal scorer (9 ppg) and poor shooter.
With Kentucky being so balanced, and presumably so deadly and deep even if the likes of Cauley-Stein or any of its other 19 Gatorade All-Americans weren’t on the roster, Portis was the clear-cut favorite due to the raw importance his presence gives to the Razorbacks. It’s the very reason Hog fans are nervously hoping the soft-spoken Little Rock Hall product will bring his wares back to Fayetteville for one more go-round this fall. Sure, he’s the league’s preeminent offensive skill player, and a fine rebounder already, but the strides he made from freshman stud to sophomore leader were enormous and suggestive that even bigger things are in store for him with another year of college seasoning.
The real reason to want Portis to return was showcased in the final week of the regular season. After getting waylaid at Rupp Arena, Arkansas had two final chores to do for theoretical seeding boosts in Sunday’s NCAA bracket announcement. The first was the Hogs’ final road trip before the conference tournament, and it was easily the most bizarre contest in a season laden with them. Against seemingly hapless South Carolina, on a Senior Night that more closely resembled a senior citizens dance hall given the lax crowd, the Hogs bolted to a 20-point lead on the strength of Portis. The offense worked seamlessly through him, and he validated the game plan with 13 points over the first 14 minutes.
Then, as they’ve often done for stretches in this otherwise overwhelmingly successful campaign, the Hogs started flubbing it. Portis disappeared, by no act of his own or even due to any tangible adjustments by the Gamecocks, and over roughly 20 minutes of game action there was a 31-point swing that seemed almost incomprehensible even as it transpired. Down 71-60 now, and looking like a shell of a squad, the juice kicked in at the right time and Portis again became the focal point down the stretch. His six points over the final 1:49 vaulted the Hogs to a 78-74 victory.
There would be no such rescue against LSU in the finale at Bud Walton on Saturday. Despite a zealous sellout crowd and steady efforts from seniors Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris in their emotional final home game, a buzzer-beating three from Keith Hornsby over Michael Qualls’ outstretched hand gave the Tigers a win that was probably more critical to their tournament chances than it was crippling to the Hogs. It was also a pretty healthy dose of karmic payback since the Hogs had claimed five of their six away wins by a combined 14 points.
Again, though, the offensive scheme was at its pinnacle when it flowed through Portis, and faltered badly when he was less involved. With a 21-point, 15-rebound effort in that loss, he put his stamp on the award he would claim three days later, but most importantly he sent the message that if this squad hopes to crest the 25-win mark for the first time in two decades, he will shoulder that burden unapologetically and fiercely. After all, he’s got a professional future riding on how he performs in these very scenarios.
For Mike Anderson, he needs a taste of victory in Nashville, too. The conference tourney has bedeviled him so far here, but he shepherds a much more battle-hardened group to Nashville this time around, with Portis clearly the identifiable and now adorned lead dog.