Time running short for Hogs to make a move

Many have framed this basketball season as a referendum on Mike Anderson’s tenure as the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball coach. Conventional wisdom was March Madness or bust.

Based on the way the Razorbacks have performed this season and what they have remaining on their plate, a NCAA Tournament bid is still on the table, but the possibility of gaining it appears less and less likely.

The Razorbacks have lost three of their last four games and during that span have tumbled in the various RPI ratings from the top 25 to just hanging on in the top 50. The NCAA does not release the actual RPI rankings it uses to select at-large teams for tournament play, but the formulas prognosticators use have proven to be fairly close over the years.

A week ago, the Hogs sat tied with Alabama for fourth place in the conference, but after two losses they are now lodged a game behind the Crimson Tide with a 6-5 record and tied with Tennessee.

Behind the Hogs and the Vols, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt are all tied with 5-6 records.

The Hogs’ overall mark of 17-7 looks deceptively competitive at this point, but on closer inspection, the Razorbacks have no marquee victories and several ugly losses.

Conventional wisdom is that the SEC will receive three or four NCAA Tournament bids. Barring a complete collapse, Kentucky (19-5, 9-2), Florida 19-5, 9-2) and South Carolina (19-5, 9-2) will make the tournament.

If the tournament bids were given out today, there’s an even chance the SEC would not get a fourth bid.

Arkansas has seven games remaining on its regular-season schedule plus the SEC Tournament to stake its claim for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Arkansas could win the conference tournament for the SEC’s automatic bid, but that seems highly improbable.

While it’s not impossible for the Razorbacks to play their way into the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard for a reasonable person to imagine them doing so based on their recent performances.

So where does that leave Mike Anderson?

I’d guess that what happens the rest of the season will play a huge role in a decision Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long will have to make, but then again, Long may already know what he plans to do.

Is conventional wisdom right? Must the Razorbacks earn a NCAA Tournament bid for Anderson to keep the job?

I don’t think it’s that simple.

Knowing Anderson, it’s hard for me to not have faith in him. He has a track record of success, and he runs his program in the right way. Based on this year’s signing class and the commitments he’s collected for the 2018 class, the future looks better.

However, the mediocrity the Razorbacks basketball program has been mired in since the turn of the century still exists. He was hired to pull the Hogs out of that mud hole, and it just has not happened.

The decision Long will ultimately have to make at the end of the year is whether it would be more fruitful for the health of the program to give Anderson more time, or is the better and necessary option to start all over at ground zero with a new coach and a new rebuilding effort.

Even if the Razorbacks somehow do pull their fat out of the fire and make it to the NCAA Tournament, I think Long has to consider that question. However, I ultimately don’t buy into the conventional wisdom that Anderson has to go if the Razorbacks aren’t a part of March Madness.

There’s much more to consider.

When former Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles fired Danny Ford after back-to-back losing football seasons in 1997, I firmly believe Ford left the football program in much better condition than the way he found it.

In hindsight, it’s a shame that he wasn’t given another season to see if his labor would have paid off for him like it did for Houston Nutt. That’s not a slap at Nutt, but Houston was fortunate to take over a program that was ready to win.

After the 2007 basketball season, Broyles fired Stan Heath despite Heath’s last two teams making the NCAA Tournament. Now, considering the Razorbacks have only been to two NCAA Tournaments since then, conventional wisdom might say that Broyles pulled the string too quickly.

However, Heath’s program was rotten from the core. The academic and other issues within the program were so irksome that once current Oregon coach Dana Altman saw the extent of them, he walked out on the Razorbacks to go back to Creighton.

John Pelphrey took a senior-laden team to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, but floundered on the court and on the academic and administrative sides, too. That led to Anderson being hired in 2011.

Anderson has cleaned up Arkansas’ program academically and administratively. Players are graduating and advancing toward degrees. From that standpoint, Arkansas’ program is in better shape than it has ever been. That foundation is solid.

The Razorbacks are expecting a Top 25 recruiting class or better this season, and based on early commitments, it’s not out of the question for 2018’s class to be ranked in the top 10.

Long has to decide whether it’s better for the Razorbacks program for Anderson to continue his reclamation project or would it be better to turn it over to the best coach he is able to hire.

The Razorbacks can take the first step in making that decision easier on Long starting Saturday by playing better basketball when they travel to LSU to face the Tigers at 7:30 p.m.

The Tigers are 1-10 in the league and 9-14 overall. They are a bad team. A loss to them would all but slam the door on Arkansas earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The thing that makes this game particularly challenging for the Arkansas is that LSU plays its best in transition, just like the Razorbacks do. Arkansas beat the Tigers, 99-86, on Jan. 21 at Walton Arena, but the Hogs can take nothing for granted going into the contest.

The Hogs looked lifeless last Tuesday when Vanderbilt blitzed, 72-59, them with a barrage of early three-point baskets. The Razorbacks energy level will be telling in this basketball game.

It’s time for the Razorbacks to bounce back from the haze they have been playing in since defeating Alabama, 87-68, on Feb. 1. The Hogs still have time to make something of this season, but that time is running short.

Arkansas track squads host Tyson Invitational

Nine ranked men’s teams and 13 ranked women’s teams highlight this weekend’s Tyson Invitational indoor track meet this weekend at the Randal Tyson Track Center.

The No 2 Arkansas women’s squad and the No. 5 Razorback men’s squad will battle a loaded field including three top-five programs on the men’s side and five top-10 programs in the women’s competition.

Athletes from Florida, LSU, Southern California, Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma State will challenge the Razorbacks.

Tickets are $5 for adults. Students 17-and-under are admitted free. Fans will get the chance to win prizes from several giveaways such as Whataburger gift cards and a Valentine’s Day box of chocolates throughout the weekend. The first 100 people through the doors on Friday and Saturday will receive Tyson Go Pink for Breast Cancer T-shirts.

The competition begins at 1:30 p.m. Friday with the women’s mile featuring Arkansas’ Safee Belbina, Micah Huckabee and Grace Taylor and continues on Saturday. Running events begin at 4:30 p.m.

Arkansas women’s pole vaulters Tori and Lexi Weeks, who lead the NCAA ranks, highlight Saturday’s competition with the event scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m.

Arkansas men’s coach Chris Bucknam sent his distance crew to compete at Iowa State. Razorbacks All-Americans Jack Bruce and Frankline Tonui seek NCAA qualifying marks in the 3,000 and 5,000, respectively.

Arkansas women’s coach Lance Harter deployed his distance runners, including seniors Valerie Reina in the 3,000 meters and Regan Ward in the 5,000 meters, to the Husky Classic in Seattle.