A couple of weeks ago in this space, just before the Razorbacks began SEC play against Texas A&M, I wrote about how the table was set for a resurgence in Arkansas basketball, and I believed this team was prepared to be the one to, essentially, bring the Hogs back to relevance.
I still believe the first part. The yellow brick road has been paved for the Arkansas basketball program, the only question is whether the Hogs will ever be able to walk it.
After these first four SEC games, there are certainly plenty of people asking that question. It feels like this team, the one that dominated non-conference opponents at home in a way Arkansas fans haven’t seen in more than a decade, that went to Maui and was competitive against three quality teams – beating one – has completely reverted back to the same Two-Faced team we’ve watched for the last few years.
I don’t pretend to know everything Mike Anderson may have tried in an attempt to break this curse. He reportedly brought in a sports psychologist to work with the team before conference play started. Before the season, he had the team go through drills with the UA ROTC to develop mental as well as physical strength.
Whatever has been done, it’s clearly not enough. Something more needs to change.
Don’t jump too far ahead. This is not in any way calling for a coaching change. That’s a pointless discussion right now. The Razorback program is clearly better both on and off the court than when Anderson came back to Fayetteville. He staked his professional career on rebuilding the Arkansas basketball program and he’ll get every opportunity to do that, which is why Arkansas rightly went ahead with plans to build the practice facility.
This isn’t a criticism of late-game play design or player rotations. All three of these last games went to overtime, and Arkansas certainly could have won all three. Yes, if the Razorbacks were 3-1 right now with wins over Florida and Kentucky, plus a road win at Georgia, we’d all be pretty happy with where things are. The Texas A&M game could be dismissed as a hiccup. Of course, similarly, the Hogs easily could have lost that Kentucky game and be 0-4 with another road game looming. Any time a basketball game goes to overtime, you can point to one play or one shot or one pass or one rebound and say “If that one thing had just gone differently…”
But here’s the thing: not a single one of those games should have gone to overtime.
If “The Fastest 40 Minutes In Basketball” works as it’s designed to, the opponents are supposed to get worn out, right? The Hogs should take over games late because of their superior conditioning, correct? The team’s superior depth will be the difference maker, that’s what we’ve been told?
Arkansas had leads in the second half of all these games. The Razorbacks never had to come back to make it to overtime. The Hogs have been the ones who’ve looked tired and gone several minutes without scoring a field goal.
In each of the three games, Arkansas played more players and were in position to put games away if they’d been able to score at their normal rates at the end of games. Instead, they went cold and allowed their opponents to come back.
Against Florida, Arkansas had a seven-point lead with 4:43 left. Eleven different Razorbacks played in the game compared to eight for the Gators. Two of Florida’s players, including Scottie Wilbekin, who hit the shot to tie the game, were questionable to play due to injury. But Arkansas could not wear them down.
The Kentucky game was closer all the way through, but the Hogs did at one point have a seven point lead early in the second half and had a six point lead with 12:31 left. Arkansas was scoring 2.17 points per minute in the first 28 minutes of the game when they built that point lead, but slowed down to just 1.08 points per minute for the rest of regulation. The Hogs didn’t keep the lead and couldn’t pull away, even though two of Kentucky’s starters spent significant time on the bench due to foul trouble. The Hogs played 12 players to 1o for the Wildcats, and the superior bench was one of the factors that helped Arkansas win eventually, and they deserve credit for that, but if the game played out like it was designed, shouldn’t Arkansas have been able to wear down Kentucky in regulation?
The Georgia game of course is the most egregious. Other than a few early ties, Arkansas held the lead for the entire second half until the Bulldogs hit a layup with 3:17 remaining. The Hogs went on a 10-3 run early in the second half to go up seven points, and it looked like Arkansas was set to finally run away with it, but then everything stalled. Arkansas only scored 11 points in the final 15:59. The Hogs had a five point lead with five minutes to go, but as we all know, the team only made two field goals in the last nine minutes of regulation, allowing Georgia to come back and tie the game.
Even against Texas A&M, the Hogs were looking respectable at halftime. Arkansas was down by just two after scoring 33 points. But in the second half, when the speed and depth is supposed to take over, Arkansas only scored 20 points. The Hogs played 12 players compared to just nine from the Aggies.
While the team is accomplishing its goal of winning the turnover battle – they’ve done so in each of the overtime games – they’re not doing so in a way that is wearing down opponents and allowing the Hogs to make late runs to seal the game. The opposite is happening. Arkansas’ opponents are the ones playing better late. And this is not just a road issue, even if the problem is exacerbated on the road.
I’m all for playing fast. It’s fun to watch and it’s proven it can be effective. But something isn’t working right now and it’s not as simple as questionable coaching decisions late in the game. The team isn’t hitting as many shots (in particular, Michael Qualls is shooting 19.6% in SEC play compared to 53.1% in non-conference) and sometimes isn’t playing smart (why has Fred Gulley, despite having two of his best offensive performances of the season, committing nine fouls in the last two games?).
We all know this team can play better, and can do so outside of Bud Walton Arena. In the team’s two losses in Maui they scored 77 and 81 points. I still think they’re capable of winning a lot of games this year, but what must be acknowledged is this “Fastest 40″ system must be tweaked. It’s simply not doing what it’s designed to do. Perhaps the new foul rules have hampered its effectiveness. Maybe teams are just smarter about conditioning than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But Arkansas doesn’t appear to be wearing anybody down. They’re not winning any games by imposing their will.
Let’s be proactive and make some adjustments. Make the chaos a little more controlled. Design a couple more plays. Just don’t rely on wearing anybody down because that’s not happening. If the team’s results end up relying on how many threes they make, that’s not a recipe for long-term success – especially with as few pure shooters as Arkansas has.
Again, this isn’t to suggest Arkansas abandon playing up-tempo basketball. But lets look for a little tweak or adjustment to tighten it up a bit. Most likely, if Arkansas is take advantage of the opportunities laid out before them, both this season and in seasons to come, some sort of changes must be made.