LITTLE ROCK — Clueless about what Mike Anderson’s spoken word to his players when the game was out of hand, the subliminal message is clear.
Compete to the end, the Arkansas coach intimated when he called timeout with 19 seconds to play and Michigan ahead by 13. Ready to party, some fans booed.
In college basketball, where teams often run off 8, 10, or 12 points in a row, the idea is to persevere and get to the final 2 minutes with a chance to win. Field goal shooting, turnovers, and all the other stats contribute to being in a competitive position, but much of it is being steadfast when the deficit is double digits and things go awry.
Like the point in the first half when Michigan led by 12 and Arkansas got nothing out of a Michael Qualls block and consecutive offensive rebounds because the Razorbacks’ best players — B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell — missed a total of three shots.
Despite an enthusiastic sellout crowd, the Razorbacks played on — something that will stand them in good stead when Southeastern Conference play begins in less than a month. At Ann Arbor, the Razorbacks trailed by as many as 13 in the first half, but it was only 56-55 with less than nine minutes to play.
At 66-59, who knows what happens if Powell makes a jumper and doesn’t compound the miss by fouling a three-point shooter. Even more encouraging is that the Razorbacks hung in although Hunter Mickelson only played four minutes in the first half because of two early fouls and Young did not score in the second half when bothered by a leg injury.
“Our guys had a chance to go away and they didn’t,” Anderson said.
Making 10-of-17 three-pointers, including 4-of-4 by Kikko Haydar, helped. Not even on Michigan’s scouting report, Haydar is a walk-on from Fayetteville. With that background and a snug-fitting “Radar” nickname, he could be a crowd favorite in Walton Arena.
The Michigan game concluded what might be the most difficult five-game stretch of any team in the country, but it’s part of a learning experience. “I told our guys, whether it was a justice or an injustice, I put them through a tough stretch,” Anderson said.
Michigan is 9-0 for the first time since 1989. Syracuse and Arizona are a combined 15-0. Wisconsin is 6-4 and Oklahoma is 6-2, including a loss to Arkansas.
Heading into semester finals, Florida (7-0) and LSU (5-0) are the only unbeatens in the 14-team Southeastern Conference. Missouri, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss have one loss each, but Mizzou is the only of the three that has play a top 25 team and that excursion resulted in a 23-point loss to Louisville. In fact, SEC teams are 1-9 vs. Top 25 teams and the only victory was the Gators over Wisconsin by 18 in the middle of November.
Six of the SEC teams have not even faced a team in the top 25 at the time.
Perennial favorite Kentucky wobbled early, but the Wildcats will be a different team by the time conference play begins. Based strictly on results in November and December, the cursory judgment is that Arkansas should be competitive with most everybody in the SEC.
For those who put stock in the home court advantage, Florida is in Fayetteville in early February and Kentucky visits a month later. In light of Arkansas shooting only four free throws, two of them off a technical, don’t ask Anderson if he thinks there was home cooking in Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, Arkansas should get to 9-4 by winning its next five games. The real season begins Jan. 9 in College Station and by competing the entire 40 minutes twice a week, a 10-8 conference record can be accomplished.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.