Arkansas needed sophomore guard BJ Young to be playing at his best when February turned to March this season. Instead, Young is in a weird struggle as teams have figured out how to defend his strengths and forced him to play into their hands.
Twice, the mercurial Young has been good enough to burn teams in the final moments in Bud Walton Arena even with his limited offensive skills.
When Missouri relaxed defensively and didn’t guard the basket in the final minute against the Hogs and blew a four-point lead with 30 seconds to go, Young saved Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks in a critical 73-71 win.
Last week, when Arkansas lost control of its commanding first-half edge over Georgia, Young saved the Hogs again with a drive and whirling flip off the backboard to beat the Bulldogs 62-60. Young had just 8 points, 1 rebound and 2 assists against Georgia.
In last Saturday’s trip to Florida, Young managed no field goals and scored 3 points with 2 rebounds and 2 assists. Arkansas lost by 17 to the Gators, 71-54, but nobody found that unexpected even if Young had managed a typical game (he’s averaged about 16 points until the last two games, dropping his per-game average to 15.3 points per game).
At LSU on Wednesday night, the Hogs’ most talented player saw his game bottom out with a mere 4 points, 1 assist and 6 turnovers. The one plus statistic was the 6-foot-2 guard’s 6 rebounds.
BJ Young had his hands on the ball on the last four Arkansas series when the Hogs had trimmed a 22-point deficit to 2, 62-60. Each one was an unmitigated disaster, though, from dribbling off 30 seconds of the shot clock before throwing up a 3-point prayer that missed, to barreling into one Tiger, then another before an official finally decided to blow his whistle and call the obvious charge on another wild possession.
That’s what you get with Young — one night it’s the ability to single-handedly win a home game; then it can be the nightmare of watching him go 1-on-5 in a winnable game and blow it, and not once but four times.
It was as if Mike Anderson could have summoned anyone on his bench into the game for Young in those final minutes and not have hurt the Hogs’ chances to win. Fans were wondering where freshman shooter Anthalon Bell was after his past two hot-shooting games. He played just 3 minutes at LSU, even with the Tigers packed in to deny the Hogs’ inside game. Fred Gulley doesn’t add much offensively, but also doesn’t turn the ball over and passes decently. He didn’t play a second Wednesday night.
Junior forward Marshawn Powell was also seemingly in a strange world during the first half, as LSU ran out to a 45-23 lead. Powell couldn’t get lay-ins to go and regularly bricked free throw attempts, including the front-end of a one-and-one.
Give Arkansas’ players credit for finally listening to Anderson and executing a road game plan to the bitter end. This one was to attack the inside, no matter the score, and refuse to give in and toss up wayward 3-pointer after 3-pointer. Giving in and trying to shoot your way back in is why you shockingly lose by 21 points at South Carolina (where, by the way, LSU won by 18) or by 18 points at Vanderbilt. Arkansas would have lost by 20 or more at Baton Rouge had the second half turned into a 3-point shooting contest, which the Hogs can not win.
Sometimes, though, the designed attack ended up with the silliest of turnovers — as soon as Powell caught a pass inside and put the ball on the floor against the LSU’s zone, some smaller, quicker Tiger was trying to slap the ball away. Young threw the ball at Powell’s feet a couple of times. Spacing by guard and forwards was often too tight for anything good to come of it.
Powell still snapped out of his funk to score a team-leading 17 points, and he had one of his better rebounding games with 8. He helped put LSU’s best player, Johnny O’Bryant III, on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls.
Usually it’s Powell who has to sit out precious minutes with quick, silly fouls. Instead, Anderson put Powell back in the game with two fouls and the Hogs being blown out late in the first half. Arkansas reeled off a 9-0 run to end the half and show it was finally willing to compete.
Then, Arkansas’ defense, which seemed a step slow and oblivious to the Tigers outside shooting, came alive in the second half. The Hogs held LSU to a point a minute in the final 20 minutes.
With only 12 points to make up in the second half to even the game, Arkansas should have run away with it in the final 10 minutes.
Instead, it was a series of blown chances over the last six minutes. It seemed the only scoring the Hogs could manage late was to force a turnover and get a layup or jumper from Mardracus Wade, who was on his game Wednesday night with 15 points, or a dunk from freshman Michael Qualls.
The half-court game had about a 20 percent efficiency rate, at best, when LSU was opening the door wide open for the Hogs.
Arkansas’ last hopes to get the attention of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee disappeared, if Wednesday night even mattered. It seems the national viewpoint is the SEC has already made its bed with a terrible conference RPI — based on sporadic play in November and December and having four awful teams at the bottom of the league. With the selection committee consistently hearing how bad the SEC is in basketball, likely just three teams will be chosen for the NCAA Tournament. Even Tennessee’s great run of the past two weeks, including a win over Florida at home last weekend, may be coming too late to matter.
Give the Big East and Atlantic 10, and the media that serves to boost those leagues, credit for getting most of the post-season conversation about them and the dominant Big Ten, even though there is enough evidence that the better SEC teams can play with the best in those leagues. Even the mediocre Big 12 will get more post-season love than the SEC.
Arkansas’ only chance for an NCAA bid is a repeat of the 2000 four-day run through the SEC Tournament. Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Ole Miss also will enter the league tournament with the realization that an early exit could crush their NCAA hopes. That won’t hope the Hogs, who seem unfocused away from Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks need to unshackle themselves of any pressure they may feel about the post-season and continue improving the corps around Young and Powell, and take care of the two remaining home games (Kentucky this Saturday, A&M next Saturday).
Maybe Arkansas can get three home games in the NIT. That paved the way for the similar 1997 UA team under Nolan Richardson to reach New York for the NIT Final Four. The Hogs followed that up with an NCAA second-round appearance in 1998, and that would be a reasonable goal for next year’s squad, whether Young and Powell are around or not.