One of the things I like about sports is the intersection of what we know and what we believe on display between the lines of competition. We get the objective truth of the final score, but before and after, there’s fertile ground for opinions held so strongly we sometimes lose track of where the facts end and our belief begins.
For example: I know there’s no proof of an organized SEC officiating cabal dedicated to making sure Arkansas loses to Auburn in football. But I believe they’ve done a bad job of convincing anybody of that over the last couple of years.
More to today’s point, entering the final stretch of the men’s basketball season, there are a few things we know about this year’s Arkansas team: They’ve found an identity, Jaylin Williams has become one of the most important players in the conference and Stanley Umude has the ability to provide a much-needed scoring threat to complement J.D. Notae.
But there’s probably just as much that we hold on faith.
Does this team have another gear? Can it survive a rock fight on the road when shots that should be falling aren’t? Are we seeing a return to 2021 form for Devo Davis?
We don’t yet know any of the above, but I believe the next five games will clarify matters.
And at the risk of blurring the line, I’d assert we already know that the Hogs are good.
It’s been a month since they steered their season out of the ditch, and in that time, they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, ascended back into the Top 25, knocked off the No. 1 team in the country and proven themselves to be a pretty good basketball team.
Based on the evidence presented, we can say that much now without reservation. They’re 20-6 on the season, playing arguably the best defensive basketball in the country (computer verified) and their only loss in over a month came by one point on the road against an Alabama team currently projected to earn a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At the very least, that’s objectively not bad.
So that much, we know.
What I believe: We won’t really know how good they are until a month from now.
I guess that’s the way it goes for most teams; they’re not truly defined until the season is complete, and endings — whether we’re talking movies, books or basketball seasons — leave lasting impressions.
But these next five games feel especially decisive for how we’ll view and remember this team.
Over the next three weeks, they’ve got three games against teams in the nation’s top 10 in NET rankings, another against a top 20 foe and another at Florida, a Quad 1 team the Hogs haven’t beaten on the road since our coach wore cowboy boots.
We could quibble with the algorithm employed by NET rankings, which places substantial weight on the number of wins a team notches against top-tier opponents, but it’s a system that’s heavily considered by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and it could work to the Hogs’ advantage if things go well.
Currently, the Hogs are 29th in NET rankings and a consensus No. 7 seed, but could boost their standing significantly with a strong finish against the caliber of competition they’ll be facing.
So, we know the Hogs are good. What we’re about to find out is how good.
What I know: Bud Walton Arena can be one of the best college basketball arenas in the country.
What I believe: We’re going to prove it in the final three home games of the year.
When the Basketball Palace of Mid-America is rocking like it was when Auburn visited earlier this month, there simply aren’t many better atmospheres in the world, regardless of sport, pro or college.
Of course, we already knew that, but it had been a while since we asserted it so forcefully in front of a national audience. What we’re going to find out now is if we’re up to the challenge of producing the same energy again and again.
Of the five remaining games, three are at home, each against a team ranked in the top 20 in NET, and each a golden opportunity to remind everybody that Arkansas has one of the only fanbases in the country that can fill 20,000-plus seats any day of the week, consistently raise the decibel level to triple digits and practically will our teams to wins that might not otherwise come.
And I believe we’re going to need that kind of home-court advantage multiple times over the next three weeks, possibly as soon as this weekend’s date with Tennessee.
What I know: Arkansas hasn’t been an elite basketball program in 30 years.
What I believe: Sooner rather than later, the Hogs will show that last season’s run to the Elite Eight wasn’t an aberration, but a harbinger of our return.
It may not happen this year, but it’s coming. We’ve been given ample reason to believe that. We have the resources, we have the coach, and we care more than just about anybody.
Even in the leanest years, part of me has always held onto some belief that Arkansas would return to national prominence on an annual basis.
It’s a bold belief, if you think about it. Out of the 350 NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball programs in the country, how many are true bluebloods? Six? Maybe seven?
So, it’s a pretty audacious sentiment to believe your team belongs among the top 2 percent, but it never struck me as irrational or unearned. Since coming of age during a run of three Final Four appearances (and a national championship) in a six-year span, I never knew us to be anything else, until suddenly, we weren’t.
But current confidence in the program’s resurgence is higher than it’s been in 30 years.
In crafting another winner this season, Musselman has more proof that his formula works with older teams, built around transfers. He’s also proven he can recruit high school All-Americans just as well, and has the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation bound for Fayetteville next season.
So the future looks bright.
We don’t know if that includes the immediate future, but if the Hogs (and their home crowd) are in peak form for Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU, I believe it might.
READ ALSO: 4th & 25: In Defense of Chris Lykes
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.