USA TODAY Sports
Why were we surprised? This is the new norm for Arkansas basketball.
Long gone are the days of relevancy for Arkansas as a national program. The Razorbacks have failed to make a postseason tournament—of any kind—since 2008.
There are kids with their drivers licenses that have lived a life of never knowing the Hogs as a team that could legitimately serve as a Final Four contender. Three coach firings and 19 years later the Razorbacks are as close as winning the NCAA Tournament as the football team was to a bowl game this season.
Plenty stories of programs that were able to put together a string of good seasons together but were unable to maintain their level of excellence have been written. But has their ever been a team to fall from being part of the national discussion year after year fallen, stayed down, unable to truly provide any sort of threat like Arkansas has since 1996?
Better yet, is Arkansas basketball just another one of these programs that was able to extend their "string of good seasons" for a couple of decades and now it’s done? Back to mediocrity?
In 1996, Rick Pitino's Kentucky team defeated John Calipari's UMass squad for the Wildcat's sixth title. Calipari won the national championship a year ago, and Rick Pitino is coaching this year's favorite, in Atlanta no less. Some coaches and programs remain relevant. Others don't.
For 19 years under Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson, the Hogs missed the NCAA Tournament three times. Of the remaining 17 years, those Razorback teams did not advance past the first round only three times. This stretch, from 1977-1996, featured a national championship, another title game appearance, four Final Fours, six Elite Eights, and ten Sweet 16s.
A "string of good seasons" like these are hard to come by for any program. Since its end though how much closer is Arkansas basketball to putting together some semblance of this again? Or was that it, the best the program will ever be?
We can all hate on Stan Heath and John Pelphrey for their leadership of the program, but they did something in their much-favored successor has yet to do in Fayetteville: take the Hogs beyond their first round, game in the SEC Tournament.
I am not calling for Mike Anderson's firing after the second year of a seven-year deal because he is still cleaning up a mess left by Pelphrey, and I have a hard time believing the program is going backwards. But it hasn't been going forward for quite some time. No Razorback team has made it to the Swett 16 since 1996.
We need to take a step back and take a closer look at perception versus reality of Arkansas basketball.
Perception: Arkansas was going to compete for the SEC Championship, or at least in SEC play. Reality: The Razorbacks finished with one more conference win than LSU.
Perception: Arkansas would be better on the road this season. Reality: The Razorbacks did finally win a true road game at Auburn, which won all of three SEC games all season (one at South Carolina, which Arkansas failed to do).
Perception: Arkansas was a bubble team. Reality: After 35 minutes of lazy, uninspired play, the Razorbacks tried to make it a game against Vanderbilt in the final five minutes of the game, an all too common occurrence this season.
Perception: Mike Anderson at least wins more. Reality: Anderson has lost one less game than Pelphrey did in his first two seasons at Arkansas. Pelphrey also had a trip to the NCAA and a 20-win season under his belt.
Perception: Arkansas is on the cusp of returning to a national power. Reality: Fans take to Twitter to express frustration and apathy after not being selected to the N(ot) I(nvited) T(ournament).
So the question still remains, is Arkansas basketball back to square one? Unfortunately, the program is no where close to the ultimate goal, and only time will answer these questions.