FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A common complaint the last few weeks, and one that is not just exclusive to SEC Country, is those in the Arkansas media should stop piling on. We should write positive stories. Quit focusing on the negative.
“It’s obvious you don’t like Arkansas.”
“Go cover a different school.”
“You don’t love Arkansas, leave it.”
For those who so badly want a positive story about Arkansas football or the state of the athletic department, well … sorry. Can’t help you there. What we can do, though, is shift your focus. I highly recommend it. Forget who will be the next football coach. Don’t worry who is going to run things as athletic director.
Live in the now — and enjoy the most-fun Arkansas basketball team this generation.
In case you haven’t noticed, and considering football just ended most probably have not, Mike Anderson’s team is having a ball so far in the early season.
Arkansas is 5-1, its lone loss at the hands of defending national champion North Carolina. They’re averaging more than 90 points a game. The combination of senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, plus the insertion of freshman 6-foot-10 center Daniel Gafford, has thrown most opponents for a loop.
Anderson has built his team like an NBA one, one with long arms and athletes and get-up-and-go. Arkansas is a team that absolutely overwhelms opponents who cannot match their pace and athleticism.
Barford and Macon are where things start. The former is averaging more than 20 points a game, third in the SEC. The latter, Macon, is above 16 a night. That number, too, is dropped because he missed the final 12 minutes of Arkansas’ loss to North Carolina. The two put their names into consideration for the NBA this summer before publicly announcing their return for a final run.
It’s their return that created the unusually high local expectations. Like most of life, we tend to remember best what we saw last. And for those who are but casual basketball fans, they last saw Arkansas take that national-championship North Carolina team to the wire in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. So when Macon and Barford said they were returning to join Gafford, the most highly touted recruit Arkansas has landed since Bobby Portis, people became pumped.
Proclamations the Razorbacks were an automatic Swet 16 team, maybe an Elite Eight or Final Four one, were made. A top-three finish in the SEC, easy. Gafford, some said, would be a one-and-done player. One particular local media member said the freshman from El Dorado would have better numbers in his first year than Moses Kingsley had in his final season. It was being laid on thick.
When national projections hit and they didn’t jive with the local hype, the annoyance set in. Arkansas was pegged to finish sixth by the collective SEC media. Some preseason magazines had the Hogs down at ninth, even, which would be well out of a shot for the NCAA Tournament, forget the Sweet 16.
There exists this delicate balancing act between expectation and reality. Arkansas is likely neither an Elite Eight team or the ninth-best team in the SEC. Players, though, think more like fans. To Macon, Barford and the rest of the Arkansas roster, they can be an Elite Eight team. Throw in the “they don’t respect us” chip on their shoulder and it’s easy to see the Razorbacks are playing like a team on a mission.
So far, the mission directives have largely been a success. Three of Arkansas’ fives wins have been absolutely dominant. The one against Fresno State left some things to be desired, though the win over the Sooners was a good test of fortitude against a similar team.
It’s hard to say what Arkansas would have done with a healthy Macon down the stretch against North Carolina. Ultimately, the Razorbacks folded up shop in the final minutes, the final score not terribly indicative of the closeness of the game throughout a good 25 minutes.
The crowds at Bud Walton Arena have been better earlier than in recent years, too. Seems more people are noticing faster. Arkansas is third in the SEC in attendance, behind Kentucky (per usual) and Missouri. Perhaps that’s a by-product of all the local media hype.
Either way, it’s a good thing. Whether you are a fan of Arkansas or not, SEC basketball is better when the Razorbacks are fun, when they’re winning.
So far, so good.
Now if only the athletic department would quit distracting.
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