On Jan. 7, 1989, the world was a much different place. The Berlin wall still stood, neither George Bush had yet served in the office of the Presidency, the average price of gas was still less than a dollar per gallon, and Nolan Richardson had never led a team beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Mileage may vary on where these facts rank in relative importance to you.
Prior to this week, it was also the last time Arkansas played a game in which the Hogs didn’t make a single 3-pointer. That streak, spanning 33 years and 1,092 games, came to an end Tuesday in a 75-59 win over South Carolina, causing some consternation in the more easily disgruntled corners of the fanbase.
And while it might seem silly to grumble about anything that transpires during a win after recent frustrations, I think some level of dismay is understandable. For many, the streak was not only a direct tie to an earlier era of Arkansas basketball, it stood for something.
During Richardson’s heyday, the Razorbacks were known for many things, and if 3-point shooting wasn’t chief among them, it was close. For six seasons beginning with 1989-90, Arkansas never shot below 37 percent from 3, and flirted with 40 percent in two seasons while regularly firing 20 triples per game.
That kind of brash marksmanship was a trait that so many of our best teams have shared, and the streak reminds us of it; of the excellence we witnessed, when we were nationally feared.
But, of course, it wasn’t always that way.
Before Isaiah Joe, or Dusty Hannahs and Anthlon Bell, or Rotnei Clarke or Pat Bradley or Al Dillard or Scotty Thurman, the 1988-89 team found an identity elsewhere.
And so, I think it’s fitting that a streak that began with them should end with the 2021-22 team in the midst of carving out its own character. More on that in a bit.
The season that began in 1988 was Richardson’s fourth year on the Arkansas sidelines and the Hogs were coming off their first NCAA Tournament berth in the post-Eddie Sutton era. They had lost a lot of production in the offseason, but were buoyed by one of the best trios of freshmen in program history – Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and Oliver Miller.
Mayberry and Day eventually became two of the school’s most prolific 3-point shooters, and even as freshmen, they shot it quite well. But it wasn’t long-range acumen that defined their first team.
I don’t have any recollection of that game against Texas in early January of 1989, the one before the streak began. But it’s still there, in all its Raycom glory, in a 10-minute highlight package on YouTube. Almost everything you’re likely to remember about the era is also there: the smothering defense, the incredible pace, and Big O’s patented floor-length outlet passes.
The one exception: the Hogs ignored the 3-point line almost completely, and rallied to a 99-92 win with only two 3-point attempts in the game.
You won’t find many other similarities between that team and the brand of basketball we see these days in Bud Walton Arena, but you don’t have to squint too hard to find parallels.
Because what carried Richardson’s team to the 1989 Southwest Conference Championship and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament was the identity it established for itself – subtly separate from what came before and what followed. It was the first time one of Richardson’s teams began lighting up scoreboards with regularity, and though the phrase may have originated with former player Scott Rose a few years earlier, 1988-89 season was the first one in which opponents experienced “40 minutes of Hell,” on a nightly basis.
Now, we’re watching a new team, using different means, going through the same process: they’re learning to be themselves. After losing five of six and opening SEC play with three straight losses, this year’s Hogs have finally started to meld into something more than the sum of their parts.
For nearly a month, Coach Eric Musselman struggled to find the right groupings of talent, experimenting with a new starting lineup in seven consecutive games. Against Missouri on Jan. 12, it appears he hit upon a winner.
With J.D. Notae and Jaylin Williams bookending three big, athletic forwards, the Hogs began that game on a 26-3 run, and forgiving a couple of subpar spurts, they’ve scarcely slowed down since, winning at No. 12 LSU last weekend, and leveling their conference record with the win over the Gamecocks.
And while they’re never going to match those vintage early 90s teams from behind the arc, in each game, they’ve shown a similar ability to share the spotlight and lock down opponents on game-defining runs.
Against Mizzou, the Hogs picked up 26 points off turnovers for the game and held the Tigers to 3-for-25 shooting in the first half. Against LSU, they trailed by eight before outscoring the Tigers 17-2 down the stretch. And against South Carolina, they opened the second half on an 18-1 run that swung the game permanently in the Hogs’ favor.
Much of the improvement can be credited to players getting more familiar with one another and better acquainted with the level of defensive intensity required to win games when you’re not able to overwhelm them with offense. But there’s another piece that’s harder to pin down.
During Nolan’s era – especially after he acquired the type of athletes he wanted – teams rarely had to seek an identity; the coach and his vaunted style of play provided it for them. In the current era, when transfers and early pro exits churn rosters much more rapidly, it’s more likely to become an annual rite. Last year’s Hogs were blessed with the presence of two superb on-court leaders in Jalen Tate and Justin Smith, and it still took them until the middle of January to jell.
I’m not sure this season’s squad has anyone who can command the huddle quite like Tate and Smith, they won’t be able to cover other weaknesses with a barrage of triples, and Musselman’s style of play is more fungible than Nolan’s.
But unlike so many other things, Arkansas fans haven’t changed that much over the last 33 years.
Nothing – not even a 30-foot 3-pointer – earns our appreciation or raises our decibel level quite like all-out, floor-slapping, court-diving, havoc-wreaking, timeout-causing defense. And lately, this year’s Hogs have shown that’s something they’re capable of, so I don’t think it’s too late for them to carve out a durable place in our hearts and minds.
Entering this weekend’s date with Texas A&M, they’ve won three straight. They’ve done it with defense, hustle and selflessness. We can’t yet say that’s the lasting identity that they’ve forged, but if they’re to reach the potential we imagined, that – more than any streak – will be what defines them.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.