LITTLE ROCK — To wash away the bad taste of Arkansas’ last two games, take a swig from the container labeled “Big Picture.”
The Razorbacks made documented progress in Mike Anderson’s third year, a fact easy to overlook because of the close but no cigar ending in Atlanta. For perspective on the accomplishments, I dug up something written after the 1-2 outing in Maui and a column published following the 2-6 start in the SEC.
The performance in paradise convinced me a 20-win season, a fourth- or fifth-place finish in the SEC and a serious flirtation with an NCAA Tournament bid were possible. Eight games deep in conference play, expectations were tempered to the point I thought an NIT bid was going to take some doing.
Relegated to the sidelines by South Carolina, Arkansas is 21-11, with a lock on the NIT — measurable steps in the right direction. Winning a couple of games in the NIT, particularly with large contributions from the underclassmen, would signal more headway.
Lamenting the what-ifs in the loss to the Gamecocks, remember that Arkansas had a chance at the end only because the best free throw shooter in the country and his teammates missed 4 of 6.
Throughout the year, Anderson had to employ a piecemeal approach because Arkansas lacked a true point guard and a reliable three-point shooter.
Ky Madden’s work at point guard was better than anticipated, but he will not be confused with Alabama’s Trevor Releford or Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin. Probably the Razorbacks’ best scorer, Madden took eight shots or less in eight of the Razorbacks’ last 11 games.
Michael Qualls strung together seven games with double-digit points, but managed only a total of 21 in the last three outings despite taking 24 shots. Arkansas’ most solid player over the past six weeks, Coty Clarke led Arkansas with 13 against South Carolina, but also scored two in one game and eight in another late in the season. Three times in the final four games of the regular season, Bobby Portis scored in single digits.
Arkansas was 3 of 14 from long range in the 71-69 loss to South Carolina, not the first time this year that the Razorbacks have been far below average from outside the arc.
Anthlon Bell has the best-looking shot on the team, but his 7 of 10 vs. Ole Miss is more than offset by his 0 for 16 in six other SEC games. Qualls made 11 of 20 threes in a four-game stretch, but was 2 of 11 in the last four games.
From 2-6 to 10-8, Anderson won with the same players who looked inept at Texas A&M, and couldn’t figure a way to win at Athens, Knoxville, or Baton Rouge. Along the way, he sold them on competing, not an easy to do when a team is losing.
Clearly, Anderson can communicate his emphasis on team ahead of self, a message delivered with the one-game suspension of Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris in early February, and a theme exemplified by Mardracus Wade. A senior who could have sulked about declining minutes and his niche as an on-ball defender, Wade busted his rump every minute he was on the court.
In this year’s media guide, Madden’s sophomore year is described as a “breakout” season. That year, he led the SEC in three-point percentage at 47.6 and his 70 treys were fourth-best in the league. He started all 32 games and averaged almost 29 minutes per.
Last year, his three-point shooting percentage dropped to 29 percent and he averaged 23.6 minutes per game. This year, he started three games and averaged barely 15 minutes per.
Yet, hung with the dreaded “role player” label, he set the tone on defense. White socks up to his knees, Wade was in the middle of things on Thursday, swiping and jabbing at the ball, prompting ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes to expound on Arkansas’ defense.
Wade’s career at Arkansas is almost over, but Arkansas’ ascension under Anderson might be getting started.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.