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Watching dominoes fall, Hogs are far removed from big time.

We all wore Arkansas razorback clothing--a couple from Marvell and the wife's sister and husband from little Rock and myself. I didn't know them until Friday night, two days earlier, sitting on row D of a dub-level section in Memphis' FedEx Forum, but we made a pact to return for the South Regional Final on March 29 in red Hog gear. Not just wearing red, because Oklahoma would be playing and we didn't to be lumped in with the Sooner fans, but specifically in gear that said "Arkansas" or "Razorbacks."

Maybe someone at the arena would notice. Maybe they might remember when Arkansas basketball mattered. (Sure enough, a custodian would notice and say it would be nice if Arkansas got back to winning like it used to.)

Between those four Arkansans and myself was another fan, Phyllis Fair of Memphis, University of North Carolina grad from the Michael Jordan era, who had gotten a weekend off from her FedEx job to see her alma mater in the South Region and bought a ticket at the last second. She wore Tar Heel blue from head to toe and we helped her cheer on her Heels.

Around us on Friday night were a horde of loud, obnoxious-in-a-fun-way Orange-clad Syracuse fans, more Arkansas friends behind us taking in the weekend in Memphis, and plenty of Tar Heel fans all about.

Besides helping Phyllis cheer her team, it was very easy to become a North Carolina fan that weekend. It's been 13 years since Arkansas last made a Sweet 16--a miraculous run by four freshmen starters and junior Darnell Robinson in 1996--and 14 years since Arkansas was a dominant fixture in the Elite Eight. It's now been 15 years since Arkansas won its only basketball national championship.

It may never happen again. Before Arkansas made the first of three Final Fours under Nolan Richardson in 1990, the closest the Hogs came was when Eddie Sutton's 1978 Triplets reached No. 1 for a week and later played eventual national champion Kentucky in the Final Four in St. Louis.

So, Hog fans must wonder, can it really happen again? More realistically, will Arkansas basketball matter like it did for what now seems like a short sliver of time?

While we watched North Carolina dominate Oklahoma 72-60 to move on to yet another Final Four, one of the red-clad fans asked me if I thought John Pelphrey "would be able to turn it around." I didn't have an immediate answer. No one does. I'm not sure the second-year Arkansas coach truly knows in his heart of hearts if I More Jim H he can. Outwardly, you can bet he'll be nothing but optimistic. But he inherited a roster that everyone knew would be depleted after one season and he now has a young team with raw ability and a handful of problem children. The Hogs had leadership this season for about a month--when former UA football star Marcus Monk magically appeared on the scene and then left again, thanks to some eligibility snafu no one's ever fully explained.


It had been so long since I'd enjoyed a Sweet 16, and the FedEx Forum was less than two hours' drive from this office, that I had to take in the action. Maybe because of the economy the South Region didn't sell out in advance. But the $171 Ticketmaster charge for two sessions of big-time basketball seemed worth it, particularly after hearing what Arkansas-Texas A&M football tickets would cost in Jerry Jones' new suburban Dallas palace.

Missing the atmosphere that Hog fans provided in swarming Dallas in ]990 and 1994 and Kansas City in 1995, I took in the Carolina pep rally Sunday in the Peabody Hotel, UNC's base. Pep band, cheerleaders and blue-clad fans crammed the hallway from the elevators to the lobby and out to bus waiting to ferry the team the mere three blocks to the arena. Cheers and fight songs were repeated over and over as the mob waited patiently for their heroes, then cheered them on to the arena.

I recalled Arkansas fans flooding the Dallas Hyatt and the now-gone Reunion Arena for the same kind of pregame rallies with thousands of fans. Arkansas put away UNC in big fashion there in ]990, and proved superiority over the Tar Heels in the 1995 Final Four as well.

Those days are but a memory. North Carolina's program survived a near disaster following Dean Smith's retirement--the brief stint of longtime aide Bill Guthridge and the calamity that was Matt Doherty as head coach for three seasons before Roy Williams couldn't turn down the Heels' job any longer. They're as big time as ever.

Kentucky is shelling out the serious bucks for John Calipari to be big time again, and when Kentucky is rolling its fans take over entire cities at tournament time. Kansas and its fans are big time, and Bill Self (who could have been Arkansas' coach in 2002 if only there had been better leadership on the Hill) continued what Roy Williams rebuilt. Ben Howland has made UCLA formidable again. His replacement at Pitt, Jamie Dixon, is making the Panthers a national player. Indiana won't be down long having hired Tom Crean.

Arkansas is nowhere these days, and nobody can answer for certain whether it will change. The players who would turn it around were at age 4 or younger the last time the Hogs mattered. So, for now, Razorback fans are left wearing their Arkansas red to watch somebody else win a regional championship.
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Title Annotation:THE LAST WORD
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 6, 2009
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