You didn't hear much about the Arkansas Razorbacks the past few weeks… and for good reason.
When the Hogs lost at Missouri on Feb. 13, they missed one of their final two chances to get a quality win before the end of the SEC regular season. Moreover, Missouri's subsequent nosedive made that loss even worse than it was at the time. Three subsequent wins against the also-rans of the SEC did little to change Arkansas's profile. The Hogs had only one major moment left before the SEC Tournament: their visit to Rupp Arena on Thursday night. Naturally, few pundits gave Arkansas much of a chance.
Let's not engage in revisionist history here, either: There was no convincing reason to think Woo Pig Sooie could stroll into Lexington, Ky., and ambush Big Blue. Arkansas, in nearly three full seasons under head coach Mike Anderson, hadn't won a single SEC road game against an accomplished, proven team. Arkansas's only SEC road win in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons came at Auburn. This season, the Razorbacks won at shorthanded Vanderbilt (Feb. 8) and Mississippi State (Feb. 22).
The only logical way to view this game in the hours before tip-off was to essentially say, "Arkansas, I'll believe you on the road in the SEC when you show me you can beat a good team."
Thursday night, Arkansas showed its coach, its fan base, and the college basketball community that it could — at long last — persevere in both a high-stakes game and a daunting road environment against a quality opponent.
No, this isn't the version of Kentucky that most commentators expected to see before the season. The Wildcats, in fact, are now unlikely to get a top-four seed on Selection Sunday. Nevertheless, after a long and well-documented run of futility on the road in a not-very-good conference, Arkansas finally found the measure of heart that was needed to truly chase away a persistent demon.
The fact that Mike Anderson broke through against Kentucky is quite poetic.
The first really big win of Anderson's coaching career came against top-seeded Kentucky in the round of 32 of the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Anderson, a disciple of iconic Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, made his mentor proud by stunning the team Richardson loved to beat in the 1990s, when few college basketball rivalries generated more electricity or excellence. Now, 10 years later, Anderson watched as his players — sick and tired of being sick and tired at the end of every high-profile SEC road game — finally found the extra measure of untaught toughness that had been missing in so many prior endgame situations. Yes, Kentucky had to miss eight foul shots in the final 11:18 of regulation to give Arkansas a second chance in overtime, but when given that extra opportunity, the Hogs didn't waste it.
Outfought for 50-50 balls in the last several minutes of regulation, Arkansas promptly won those 50-50 scrambles in overtime, as a youthful Kentucky team hesitated under pressure, much as it did against Florida in Rupp Arena a few weeks ago. While Kentucky finished 12-of-22 from the foul line, Arkansas made all 16 of its free throws, six of them in the extra period. Coty Clarke hit four of those foul shots and scored 7 points in overtime.
Was it all so wildly improbable? Sure. Yet, it happened. Now, Mike Anderson has a signature road win to point to in his career in Fayetteville, Ark., at the job he coveted precisely because Nolan Richardson had made his name there. Anderson left a highly prosperous situation at the University of Missouri. (He might have led the Tigers to their first Final Four and removed a weighty reality from the program's track record.) He risked a lot to come to Arkansas. Entering Thursday night, his third season had "NIT" written all over it.
Just like that — and with some timely help from Kentucky's truly "foul" shooting — Arkansas now has a resume advantage over Tennessee and, accordingly, a legitimate chance of making the NCAA tournament. Yet, that's not even the full extent of the benefits gained by Arkansas in this unexpected moment of triumph.
Next season, this team doesn't need to hear about its inabiilty to win big SEC games on the road. Next season, Arkansas basketball is more likely to play with the freedom exhibited by Richardson's best Razorback teams, and by Anderson's most accomplished squads at UAB and Missouri.
Most days in this long and meandering life don't transform us. Two and a half hours on a Thursday night transformed the way Mike Anderson's coaching career — and Arkansas basketball — will be perceived in the near future.