Jim Harris: Arkansas Basketball Faces Must-Win Week in SEC

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Arkansas basketball coaches won’t say it, but we will: The Razorback basketball team must win both games this week — at home Wednesday night against Mississippi State and on the road Saturday against South Carolina, with both programs at their lowest point in years — or the Hogs can forget March Madness yet again.

Sure, by some minor miracle the Hogs could win 9 of their last 12 games after this week, but that’s not a realistic possibility if they can’t take care of business in a home game and a road trip that are both for the taking. And yes, for thedreamers, Arkansas could  somehow run the table in Nashville at the SEC Tournament, though these Hogs have shown no propensity for winning once away from Bud Walton Arena, much less three or four straight that it would take.

This is not a week to go 1-1, and surely not 0-2, and have any hope for post-season play. If Arkansas can’t win at South Carolina, then how could anyone expect them to go into Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Nashville and get a road win?

No, the coaches won’t put a “must-win” tag on this week, but head coach Mike Anderson has taken the unusual step of naming team captains as his club heads into the final 14 games of the regular season.

At stake over the next seven weeks is, if nothing else, good seeding for the SEC Tourney. Perhaps a 9-5 finish over these last 14 games (for 11-7 and an upper-half ranking in the SEC), and maybe a win or two in Nashville in the tournament, might get the Razorbacks some notice from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. If the committee can’t find a spot among the 68 in the dance, if the SEC only lands three invitations to the NCAA tourney, they’d still present a post-season opportunity in the NIT, which the NCAA owns.

Last Saturday in Oxford, Anderson’s squad showed signs of improvement and a will to compete on the road despite long odds, at least through 30 minutes. During the last quarter of the game, however, Ole Miss outscored the Hogs 24-12 to win by 12, 76-64.

When Arkansas needed to make a few plays, during the stretch where the Rebels broke away from a 52-all deadlock, the Hogs couldn’t muster even one.

B.J. Young, the Hogs most talented player, continued to take his 6-2 frame to a basket well-guarded by the Rebs 6-11 Reginald Buckner. Mardracus Wade, fresh in off the bench, flung a 3-point attempt that found only the backboard, not even a part of the rim. Arkansas found a way again to turn it over AGAINST pressure instead of forcing enough turnovers. For the game, the Hogs surrendered the ball 19 times and forced 16 turnovers; at Texas A&M in a 69-51 loss, the Razorbacks were minus-2 in the turnover department as well. At least in  Oxford, Arkansas gave a good accounting on the boards against some of the league’s best rebounders.

Suddenly, after that Rebels surge, it was a double-digit deficit, and an obviously spent Arkansas team wouldn’t be able to make up a 13-point margin a second time at the gosh-awful Tad Pad. (Seriously, who was shocked the power went out on Ole Miss’ home floor, requiring a 25-minute delay?)

Anderson came away from Oxford deciding his team needed to know who was boss among the players, and captaincy was bestowed on fourth-year junior forward Marshawn Powell and third-year junior walk-on guard Kikko Haydar.

The coaching staff and the fans who have watched this team the past several weeks didn’t need that pointed out — it was clear Powell, with the exception of a foul-plagued bad night at Texas A&M, had evolved into the Hogs’ go-to guy both for his on-court play and for an example off the court to follow.

As for Haydar, a Fayetteville High product and the son of UA professors, there hasn’t been a minute he’s come into a game and not given everything he has. No, he doesn’t have it all in the way Young does. Haydar seems to react a half-step slow and he gives the Hogs only an occasional boost with his outside shooting. At 5-foot-10, he doesn’t intimidate rival backcourts such as Auburn’s, which lit up the Razorbacks from  beyond the 3-point line (for contrast, look at how Kentucky’s backcourt length and height bothered Auburn, AT Auburn, into an oh-fer shooting night on 3s last Saturday).

These are the two players who are leading by example and continuing to play despite periods when the calls go against them or when the momentum has switched on the road.

Upon word of Anderson’s rare move to name team captains more than halfway into the season, some observers saw it as a message to Young, who marches to his own beat much of the time. Young overestimates his abilities to shoot from the outside or to score on players much longer and taller inside, and his disappointment after offensive failures leads exponentially to bigger problems for the team on the defensive end. When he’s on and playing Anderson’s style all over the court, Young is without question as dynamic as anyone John Calipari puts on the court at Kentucky these days.

However, Young is a sophomore, one of three on the squad, if Anderson was trying to send any message, it seems it was directed toward the other juniors — he has no seniors, which might be a curse as much as anything with a squad looking for someone to lead. And, specifically, that might apply to third-year junior guards Wade and Rickey Scott, John Pelphrey recruits whose inconsistency no doubt confounds Anderson and his staff. Their up-and-down play mirrors the team’s results, especially away from home.

Arkansas’ talent level is what it is, and that can’t improve this season. The shooting (from the field AND line) is sporadic, though some players continue to want to find out game after game on the road if this might be the one night the 3-point shooting is “on.” Arkansas fell behind Ole Miss by 13 early in the second half doing that, rallied to tie the game against a very good team by attacking the inside with Powell and Hunter Mickelson, then settled back into this type of game — ill-advised drives into traffic or one-pass shots early in the shot clock, all of which could be statistically chalked up as turnovers — that won’t win in the SEC.

Now, there should be no question who runs the show among the players. Basically, all Anderson is asking is that everyone buy in to giving 100 percent for 40 minutes, his style. When certain players give up the “my way” for “our way,” the Razorbacks will be a team deserving of postseason play.

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