Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ar-kin-saw, Ar-kin-saw...

When I was a junior in college, during the 2007-08 basketball season, I traveled with two friends down to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to watch Missouri play the Razorbacks.

It was on a Wednesday night, but when you’re in college, every night is a weekend. It was quite a trip, and the memories remain vivid. Bud Walton Arena was big and hot. Someone trotted around the court with an “Arkansas Fans Are Standing” sign. The crowd did that eerie “call the hogs” cheer.

It was a close game. Missouri’s Stefhon Hannah was hot in the first half, but cooled off in the second. Missouri fought to within three with just a few seconds to go. The Tigers had an in-bounds play that achieved train-wreck status, ending in forward Darryl Butterfield awkwardly heaving a potential game-tying shot at the rim. It missed.

On Saturday the Tigers (18-6, 7-4 in SEC play) travel again to Arkansas (15-9, 6-5 in SEC), this time for an SEC game (3 p.m. on ESPN). I plan to be there again, and I keep thinking about all that has changed since then.

At the time, Missouri had the No. 1 college football team in the country; now it’s coming off a losing season. That Missouri basketball team wasn’t especially good and is most remembered for the Club Athena fiasco; this year’s team is well positioned for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Biggest of all, Mike Anderson coached the Tigers in that last meeting, but he left Missouri to coach Arkansas, where he was an assistant for several years under Nolan Richardson.

That last tidbit adds some spice to Saturday’s game, as Missouri still has two players whom Anderson coached. I don’t begrudge Anderson for going back to a familiar place where he was a part of great success, and he did a good job building Missouri back up from the crater that was the end of Quin Snyder’s tenure.

But I like there being a little edge for this game. I’m a big proponent of sportsmanship, but I’m ready to see Missouri’s love-fest with other SEC teams pass. Last Saturday, Missouri showed that edge and intensity in a 98-79 win over Ole Miss (18-6, 7-4 in SEC).

The Tigers now need to show they can take that kind of performance on the road. Missouri lost its first four SEC road games and five road games overall, including last Thursday’s painful loss at middling-at-best Texas A&M.

Arkansas is also great at home (13-1 at Bud Walton this season) and poor on the road. Last week they shattered Florida’s aura of SEC invincibility with a big win in Fayetteville, they went on the road and lost to lowly Vanderbilt. B.J. Young leads the Hogs in scoring, and big man Hunter Mickelson is an intriguing player with some shooting touch.

Given both teams’ home-road splits, Arkansas would seem to have the edge. But if the Tigers can show some intensity and maturity, and avoid another big early deficit on the road, they have a shot. Easier said than done, but it would be big win if they can get it.

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