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Arkansas, once a power, now stuck in two decades of mediocrity

Arkansas is nowhere near the program it once was. How does this happen? (USATSI)
Arkansas is nowhere near the program it once was. How does this happen? (USATSI)

Late Tuesday night, while most college basketball fans were discussing Michigan State's short-handed win at Iowa, Kentucky's humbling loss to LSU and Doug McDermott's 39 points against St. John's, Arkansas dropped a home game to Missouri by a final score of 75-71.

It was the Razorbacks' fifth loss in seven games and second home loss this season.

Their record is now 13-7 overall, 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference.

So, barring a surprise, they will not make the NCAA tournament.

"It's kind of uncharted territory for us," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told reporters after the game, and he probably didn't realize the magnitude of those words.

Anderson was talking specifically about the home loss to an unranked team because the Hogs have, throughout the past few years, been confusingly good at home despite a poor record elsewhere. They don't usually lose games like this. That was Anderson's point. But he could've just as easily aimed those words -- "It's kind of uncharted territory for us," -- at the program in general because Arkansas is on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight season, and that's something that hasn't happened since the early 1970s.

Even more surprising is this: Arkansas hasn't made a Sweet 16 since 1996.

That was 18 years ago.

Consequently, there are freshmen enrolled on campus who weren't even alive the last time the Razborbacks participated in a Sweet 16, and that's hard to believe considering this is a school that made three Final Fours in a six-year span from 1990 to 1995 -- and played in two national championship games, and won a national title -- and is arguably the SEC's second-best college basketball program, from a historical perspective, behind only Kentucky.

Even harder to believe is this: Of the 13 other SEC schools, only South Carolina has gone longer without making a Sweet 16 than Arkansas. That's it. Georgia and Mississippi State both also went in 1996, and the other 10 SEC schools -- Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, etc., -- last made the Sweet 16 more recently than Arkansas last made the Sweet 16. This sport might not have a wilder program-related fact.

So what happened?

How did a program like Arkansas become mostly irrelevant?

After two days of talking with multiple people who know the program and history well, the consensus is that everything can be traced back to the way Nolan Richardson's tenure ended in 2002, which led to a discrimination lawsuit against the school. Never mind that the lawsuit was deemed frivolous and ultimately dismissed. By then, Arkansas, playing a public relations game, had decided, in March 2002, to hire a minority replacement -- it was Stan Heath after one year at Kent State -- instead of making a serious run at a more established coach like, say, Bill Self, whom sources believe might've taken the job. Combine that with the theory that Richardson's lawsuit hurt the school's ability to recruit, and what followed was a five-year period in which the Razorbacks finished with a losing league record four times and never advanced in the NCAA tournament.

Heath was fired in 2007.

At that point, sources have told CBSSports.com that school officials believed they had a loose agreement in place and genuinely thought they were moving Heath to hire Gillispie. It was supposed to be that simple. But Gillispie, at some point, realized the Kentucky job that had just opened might fall to him. So he held out, waited, and ultimately landed in Lexington.

Arkansas was lost.

School officials had no backup plan, sources said.

What followed was a coaching search highlighted by Arkansas trying unsuccessfully to hire John Calipari away from Memphis. Eventually, the school reached a deal with Dana Altman, which likely would've been fine. But Altman changed his mind a day after being introduced because, sources said, he realized the program was in way worse shape than he anticipated.

So Arkansas was back to scrambling.

The school ultimately hired John Pelphrey in April 2007.

He was fired four years later after missing the Field of 68 three straight seasons.

Add it up, and the Heath/Pelphrey era consumed nine years in which the program's relevance slipped both locally and nationally. The subsequent hire of Anderson in March 2011 was considered a home run, and it might still work. But he's 18-23 to date in SEC games, coming off a home loss to Missouri and currently slotted 12th in the league standings, meaning things haven't gone well regardless of where they go from here.

Either way, it's all weird.

Arkansas is about to miss the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year and Sweet 16 for the 18th straight. If somebody would've told you that in the 1990s, back when Richardson had things rolling, you would've never believed it possible under any circumstances.

 
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