State of the Hogs: The Dunk

Michael Qualls has put himself into the memory book for Arkansas fans with the last-second dunk to beat Kentucky. That's just part of the good news for the Hog basketball team, figuring out how to play Mike Anderson's style with low turnover numbers.

What's your favorite Arkansas basketball memory? It may depend on your age. Anyone under 35 may strain to remember too much about the Scotty Thurman three that pushed the Hogs past Duke in the 1994 title game.

That's not me. I've got a deep memory bank of great Arkansas basketball moments, including courtside as a reporter for most. U.S. Reed shook my hand and others on press row – kind of like a proud papa after a birth – after his halfcourt shot against Louisville in the NCAA tournament. I wasn't far away when Charles Balentine buried No. 1 North Carolina in Pine Bluff.

I was just five feet away courtside when Scott Hastings lofted a 20-foot game winner over Akeem Olajuwon in Barnhill. I was in the media section in the Checkerdome when Ron Brewer downed Notre Dame in the Final Four consolation game in 1978.

So where do you put the Michael Qualls dunk to beat Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena? It probably depends on your age and mind, but it's in my top five. It was pretty incredible even for an oldtimer, some of it due to the recent void of great Arkansas basketball moments.

Someone asked if the media, now about 30 rows high in the stands, celebrates on a shot like that. No. You are too busy to even think about that, although there are fans in the bunch. All have either a phone or pen in their hands or are busy typing on their laptops in live blogs to do anything other than work in those situations. I was trying to scribble notes on everything I saw.

The Qualls dunk probably rates high just because there hasn't been a lot to celebrate in recent Arkansas history, football or basketball. That it was against Kentucky is super sweet. The Arkansas-Kentucky series was once considered a budding rivalry with respect from the Bluegrass State as the Razorback fans packed the SEC tournament in the glory days of the Nolan Richardson era.

I recall the mid-1990s when a Kentucky travel agent got my name and phone number to seek tickets in Barnhill when the Wildcats came to town, and again when Bud Walton was opened. With a huge number of SEC tournament ticket books secured from schools that did not compete well in hoops, the travel agent bought ads in Hawgs Illustrated promising tickets and rooms.

That travel agent hasn't called in recent years because he didn't think Arkansas fans would exhaust the SEC's allotment. And he can buy tickets at the door in Bud Walton. I did get an email from him at the start of the Mike Anderson era with a simple question: Are the Hogs back?

Not quite, but the Qualls dunk could be more than a flicker of hope that the good old days are not far away. One of the things a true fan noted to me about midnight Tuesday was that the Hogs beat Kentucky with their best senior disqualified by fouls. Coty Clarke fouled out at the 7:45 mark of regulation.

It's getting closer. They've got to get over the road blues, but Big Blue can attest that it's no fun to play in Bud Walton, now or ever.

Yes, Kentucky was playing with freshmen. But Arkansas will probably return its underclassmen next year, unlike the Wildcats. That was the one and only time Julius Randle will play in Bud Walton.

One of the most encouraging developments for this Arkansas team has to be Rashad Madden's emergence. I've long held that Madden was the key to this season. So much falls on the shoulders of the point guard on both ends of the court. His decisions have been sharp of late and he clearly is one of the team's most dangerous three-point shooters.

Most will focus on the Qualls dunk as the highlight of Tuesday night. How could you not? But there were so many wonderful developments, including what the Hogs didn't do that has plagued them so often the last few years. They did not turn the ball over.

Randle, with zero assists, committed five in 32 minutes for Kentucky, one less than the Hogs did as a team. Bobby Portis, the UA McDonald All-American, had zero turnovers in 33 minutes, with three assists.

Madden had three turnovers in 32 minutes. That's not a terrible number for someone who handles the ball so much. But the great news is that the rest of the team had just three. That's a wow number.

Anderson is so much like Richardson it's scary. He talks with the same phrases and emphasizes the same points. Sitting in an Anderson interview sparks great memories for me because I hear Nolan, dating back when I covered him as Anderson broke in as a junior college point guard at Tulsa for Richardson.

The Hogs have a hard time playing the exact way Richardson played because of the way the game has changed with the hand check taken out of the game. And, wow, did the refs take hand checks out of the game Tuesday night? There were 60 fouls called, although many were anticipation mistakes. It's a reach, so it must be a foul. Or, there is hip to hip contact, so the defense gets the whistle.

Get this, Arkansas has scored only 5 points on fast breaks against Florida and Kentucky combined. That's the reason the shooting percentages have been under 40. Without an easy basket, the percentages drop. But the Hogs are still getting up more shots than the opposition, one of the goals with a fast paced attack.

But they were patient in both games and did not turn the ball over. Arkansas got 13 more field goal attempts than Kentucky and a surprising one more free throw. Kentucky has been shooting 20 more foul shots than its opposition. The Arkansas bench scored 29 points with only one turnover. Those are winning numbers for the Hogs.

It's those low turnover numbers that Richardson always preached and got. You miss a shot, you keep playing. You turn it over, that put you on the bench. Anderson isn't far away from that belief.

And, he's going to find athletes, just like Richardson. Who doesn't enjoy watching Qualls, Clarke and Portis? Moses Kingsley has moments where he looks awkward and spindly, but there are also wonderful hints of something really special. Oh, yes, we saw something special Tuesday night.

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