I don’t know if y’all have run across this, but there’s a bit of self-help wisdom often passed around on the internet asserting that happiness grows in direct proportion to acceptance and inverse to expectations.
In other words, when expectations are high, it’s harder to be happy, and vice versa.
I’m here today to affirm that truth – and to point out that it’s a bit of a hamster wheel when applied to sports. Winning begets the need to win more, and then more, and then more.
We know it from first-hand experience. If your favorite football team is planning to compete for a national championship, an 8-4 season would probably feel like a massive letdown. On the other hand, if you’ve endured Chad Morris in the recent past, the same record might accomplish the feeling of a minor miracle.
And now, for the first time in a long time, the weight of championship-level expectations have landed on both the Arkansas men’s basketball team and its fans – and they seem to be making everybody kinda miserable.
So far this season, even during the course of nine straight wins, we’ve mostly seen a pretty good – but definitely not great – basketball team. For 90 percent of the country that might be OK. For a significant majority, it’d be wonderful. But Arkansas has the blessing and the curse of being one of the few fanbases in the country equipped with the institutional memory to tell the difference.
And that makes it complicated.
It’s amazing how quickly and easily we’ve resumed our posts as demanders of excellence. Despite the intervening disappointments between the 1990s and 2020, we’ve seen and remember enough elite college basketball to make us discerning consumers. We might not be able to diagram the best way to attack a 1-3-1 zone defense, but we know what it looks like when our coach and point guard do. And that’s what we expect. For a generation of us born in the sweet spot – when the train was already rolling and well before it derailed – it still feels like a birthright.
The flip side is that we also know what it looks like when everything’s wound a click too tight, when a group of five individuals is disconnected on both ends of the floor, when shooters are firing with more hope than confidence, and when the proverbial left hand is utterly unaware of the right’s whereabouts when trying to defend a pick and roll. And unfortunately, we also know we’re not going to smash the top tier of NCAA teams on the offensive boards like we did for much of the first stage of the season.
But what we’ve seen much less of — especially in the recent past — is a team learning on the fly to cope with success and the expectations that come with it. And for that reason more than any other, I think this might be Eric Musselman’s biggest challenge yet at Arkansas.
In terms of raw talent, there’s arguably more of it on this team than we’ve seen in years. There’s no sure-fire first-round draft pick, but at his disposal Musselman has four players with a proven ability to get buckets at the college level, five more with experience as helpful role players, and two other top 100 recruits from the Class of 2020 who have shown only glimpses of what they may be capable of.
But it wasn’t raw talent that lifted last year’s bunch to heights not seen in 25 years, and it won’t be what determines the fate of this group either. Basketball is sometimes an odd sport that way. Better players don’t necessarily yield better teams. As we see annually in March Madness, cohesive play can overcome a striking disparity in talent.
The problem so far this season is that the Hogs have yet to coalesce into more than the talent of their individual pieces. And even though it’s concerning, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. It only underscores the impressiveness of last year’s accomplishments.
Speaking of which, it’s helpful to keep in mind that Arkansas looked similarly lost about 11 months ago. After rolling unbeaten through a non-conference schedule even more forgiving than this year’s, they dropped four out of five early in SEC play and were trailing by 19 at home against Auburn. Personally, I was about two turnovers away from turning off the TV in disgust at that point.
Then, something clicked and we got the first real glimpse of the team that we grew to love over the next nine weeks as the Hogs methodically erased the deficit, came away with a two-point win, and lost only one more game in the regular season en route to a finish in the Elite Eight.
It might be tempting to draw parallels, but I’m not yet convinced we’ve yet seen a similar transformation in this year’s team, though it was heartening to see the brand of basketball on display in a blowout win over Elon on Tuesday.
Whether it was Musselman’s lineup experimentation or the players-only meeting prior to the game, something spurred the prettiest style of play this team has produced to date. Instead of overwhelming a lesser opponent with athleticism as they had done often during a 9-0 start to the season, the Hogs began sharing the ball within the rhythm of the offense – not forcing as many shots or passes – and went from down by five to up by 12 in the final six minutes of the first half.
But the demanding fanbase we are, we’re going to need to see more of that.
We’re going to need to see the newcomers continue to adjust to their new roles – and that’s no simple task. Stanley Umude, Chris Lykes and Au’diese Toney have all been primary scorers on practically every team they’ve been on from the time they began playing on 10-foot rims. That won’t be their role on this team – at least not on an every-game basis. They’ll have to adjust the way they play the game, renounce personal goals in favor of the team’s. I think they can do it; I don’t think they’d have left their previous schools if they weren’t willing to try.
And it’s not all on them. Devo Davis will have to continue to explore his offensive role, Jaylin Williams needs to keep expanding his, and Musselman has to find ways to get Jaxon Robinson and K.K. Robinson open looks from the perimeter while also leveraging the various strengths of Kamani Johnson, Trey Wade and Connor Vanover.
They’ll need to do all of it with the weight of expectations heavy on their shoulders. And even more than the stacked SEC slate that awaits, that might be the biggest challenge they’ll face, because it’s the most unfamiliar.
Watching this team through its first 12 games, you can almost see the burden they’re carrying; the try-hard darling on last year’s team trying to skip straight to sophomore superstardom, the high-scoring transfer wanting to pour in buckets with the same efficiency against better competition, and the frustration spilling over into a flagrant foul when things aren’t going as smoothly as we planned.
I haven’t fully recalibrated my expectations for this team – I still think it’s capable of making a run deep into March. But I have fine-tuned my hopes, and I think there’s a subtle difference.
More than anything, what I hope we see over the remainder of the season is a team having fun, putting aside what they’re supposed to be and finding joy in what they are. Of course, those things go hand-in-hand with success, because there’s little happiness to be found in losing, but if they can put aside the angst brought on by expectations, I think they’ll find the best way to meet them.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.