Hogs Need Someone Smarter To Hate and UConn Might Just Be the Answer

Meleek Thomas, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, UConn basketball, Arkansas vs UConn
photo credit: Twitter/Meleek Thomas / Craven Whitlow

Rivalries are almost always built on, or at least sustained by, geographical location, especially nonconference rivalries. Kentucky-Louisville. Cincinnati-Xavier. Iowa-Iowa State. Missouri-Illinois. Honestly, it’s difficult to legitimately consider a rivalry that isn’t bound by geography.

Arkansas will soon have an in-conference rival. It’s the same as its former in-conference rival. John Calipari’s move from Kentucky to Fayetteville all but ensures increased animosity between the two schools in college basketball. Not that they needed much prodding. They’re the two most successful schools in the Southeastern Conference since the Razorbacks joined (consideration can be given to Florida, too). Kentucky and Arkansas deserve each other, too. Great basketball histories.

And fan bases that, uh, well, aren’t always the smartest. Some within Arkansas’ wanted to fire Dave Van Horn three weeks ago. Kentucky’s think Mark Pope flying coach is because he’s a man of the people:

SEC schools are gonna SEC.

But the Razorbacks could even more oomph on the national stage. Playing in Madison Square Garden this winter will help, but not the team the Hogs have to play. In national acclaim, Kentucky still has some advantages over Arkansas in oomph. One of the best places to provide it? Well, how about the team that knocked Arkansas out of the Sweet 16 two years ago and has won back-to-back national championships?

Connecticut, more commonly known as UConn by those not up on their 50 states, would be just the thing to further increase Arkansas’ national footprint. Calipari joining the program provided plenty of momentum to that end and soon, depending on what Arkansas does next season, it’ll be time to take the next step. Actually, it might come even sooner than the end of next season. It might come here in the next several weeks.

Meleek Thomas Picks His Suitor Soon

Meleek Thomas, a five-star recruit in the Class of 2025, will soon have a decision to make on where he wants to play his college basketball. He’s already joined Overtime Elite in a deal that will allow him to make NIL money while keeping his collegiate eligibility intact during his senior season of high school. Thomas has also narrowed his options on the recruiting side of things, as he visited Storrs over the weekend and is scheduled to arrive in Fayetteville on Tuesday. Neither team is considered a front-runner. In fact, they’re largely considered tied right now.

UConn, obviously, has the edge when it comes to recent success. The Huskies’ back-to-back titles provided the first instance of consecutive national championships since those aforementioned Gators pulled the feat in 2006 and 2007. They’re a program that has been a staple in the Top 25 since the early 1990s with six championships in the last 25 years alone. While their fans obviously aren’t deluded about their place in the current basketball landscape, they – unlike a special group from Kentucky – also don’t allow other teams’ coaches to live rent-free in their psyches.

UConn basketball coach Dan Hurley recently turned down the opportunity to coach LeBron James and the Lakers, leaving Los Angeles with a guy who can’t keep from detonating an f-bomb in his own introductory presser. Hurley rubs some folks wrong, as does Tony Vitello in college baseball, but both are champions and highly respected.

Arkansas, though, has its own coach who has already had a stint in the NBA. Calipari even took the then-lowly New Jersey Nets to the playoffs in his second year. He quickly returned to the college ranks and has missed the postseason just one time since 1988-89, his first year as a head coach. Calipari has more wins at the college level than icons like Eddie Sutton, Lefty Driesell, Lute Olson and Henry Iba.

Calipari’s Personality, NBA Bonfides

John Calipari may or may not be selling himself to recruits, but personality has never been more important in the chess match that is bringing players to your school. Those geographical connections mean plenty to fans, thus the rivalries. But to players, it’s a different world.

They’ve always wanted to go to a place where they can win, play and become a star. That hasn’t changed. What has, though, is their awareness. With every game on television or streaming nowadays, teams can barely differentiate from one another. Winning does so. Personality does so greater. 

Meleek Thomas is already working on being more of a household name. He transferred from Lincoln Park Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh to Overtime Elite in Atlanta. Overtime Elite was home to Arkansas signee Karter Knox last year. Knox flipped his commitment from Kentucky to Arkansas when Calipari changed addresses. Rob Dillingham, a guard with the Wildcats last year, also played there in Atlanta.

Arkansas may not be able to sell itself on success in the 2023-24 season, but Calipari can just pull out a list of all the players he’s put in the NBA and a recruit who wants such an outcome will have to take real notice. Plus, it doesn’t hurt things that Calipari can relate to Thomas on a personal level. Both are Pittsburgh natives.

Arkansas vs UConn Basketball Rivalry Brewing?

Dan Hurley is going to get elite, er, great players regardless. If Meleek Thomas were to choose the Hogs over the Huskies, it isn’t going to doom UConn’s season. It isn’t even really going to take away any of the Huskies’ sheen. While fans may click on recruiting stories more often than most game stories, the outcomes are always going to be more important.

But if Thomas does select Arkansas, it’ll be evidence of the Razorbacks’ continued rise back to the main stage.

Arkansas will be back in the conversation, anyway, of course. John Calipari’s name alone guarantees it. The roster he’s put together in Fayetteville, too, should be one that draws some Top-10 votes for the preseason. At worst, the Razorbacks will be ranked in the Top 25. Put together some wins in SEC play, maybe beat the Wildcats, even, and more eyeballs will be on the Arkansas basketball program than have been since Nolan Richardson was pacing the sideline. 

And, then, hey, who knows. Maybe we can get a little Natural State/Nutmeg State rivalry going. The spice angle would take care of itself. Can’t hurt to dream, anyway.

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Here’s the latest on Arkansas recruiting Maleek Thomas and fellow blue-chipper Darius Acuff:

As you can see below, Maleek Thomas has a lot of former Memphis star Tyreke Evans in his game. Conveniently enough, Calipari coached Evans:

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