Kevin McPherson: Hogs Must Win at Bud Walton Arena

 

 

The very thought of the Arkansas Razorbacks invading Lexington and taking down the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats and their freshman sensation who left the Land of Opportunity for Big Blue country is enough to make any Hog fan giddy.

Topple the most storied program in college basketball and its band of NBA-bound one-and-dones who are led by the one-and-done who got away, and the collective eruption of Razorback giddiness would have warmed up this cold, snow-covered state on Saturday.

But the goal last week was always about getting a split on the road – a Tuesday night game at Tennessee up first with the Wildcats of the Commonwealth State on deck for Saturday. And that’s exactly what the Hogs got — a split. A much needed 1-1 road trip after the Hogs lost their first home game of the season to No. 24 Florida in the SEC opener on December 29.

At 12-3 (1-2 SEC) and with an RPI of No. 26 at the time of this writing, Arkansas comes home to host a couple of SEC foes — Mississippi State on Tuesday and Missouri on Saturday. Typically, you wouldn’t think of early conference games as MUST wins, but in a world where RPI/SOS metrics make or break your NCAA tournament at-large-bid resumes, Mississippi State and Missouri are must-win endeavors for the Hogs.

Take care of business at home this week, and the Razorbacks would improve to 14-3 overall but more importantly would move above .500 in league play at 3-2. Wins over the Bulldogs (RPI No. 176) and Tigers (RPI No. 263) wouldn’t move the Hogs’ RPI needle much if at all, but a loss to either team would cause the Hogs’ RPI to plummet and would be a dreaded “bad loss” on the resume down the road. Lose both, and the Hogs would become a bubble team for the NIT.

Handle both, and Arkansas’s NCAAT resume — RPI in mid-20s, 3-3 record vs. RPI Top 75, 11-0 record vs. RPI Nos. 100-and-above, and 2-2 away from home – would probably still be good enough to maintain the 8-seed projection that Joe Lunardi had for the Hogs last week in his most-recent NCAAT Bracketology.

See, these two games at Bud Walton Arena are MUST wins. But back to what was accomplished last week on the road.

After falling behind by 13 points late in the first half against Tennessee on Tuesday, the Hogs got a huge lift from an unexpected source. Junior guard Jaylen Barford, the No. 1 player in all of junior-college last season who had been struggling with turnovers and sporadic production for Arkansas this season, struck for several impressive scores to help pull the Hogs within 2, 39-37, at halftime. Barford and the Hogs’ other 4 veteran guards — Anton Beard, Daryl Macon, Dusty Hannahs, and Manny Watkins – continued the points parade in the second half, and in the end the group combined for 66 points to forge an 82-78 win in Knoxville.

The backcourt, which has been the strength of this team all season, not only sparked the team offensively, but their constant pressure at both ends played a part in Tennessee shooting 39% from the field and 26% on 3-pointers. And the guards got some help from frontliners Moses Kingsley (only 7 points, but team-highs of 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists, and 2 steals) and Dustin Thomas (6 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 steals off the bench).

Erasing that 13-point deficit in their first MUST win of the season set the table for staying on track toward getting back to the Dance in mid-March. Winning on the road is part of the formula for earning an at-large bid, and the Hogs continue to show they can win away from home. After having the worst road record in the SEC spanning nearly a decade, Arkansas has now gone 18-22 outside the state of Arkansas dating back to the second-half of the 2013-14 season. And they’ve split their last 20 SEC roads games (10-10) going back to the ’14-’15 season.

You could even point to the first half of the Kentucky game as evidence the Hogs were not going to back down on the road, not even in the temple of college-basketball temples, Rupp Arena.

Behind Barford’s 14 first-half points, the Hogs held a few small leads and trailed by only 3 points, 41-38, at the break. A bizarre series of calls led to Barford picking up 3 fouls in 11 seconds in the second half, and more whistles led to a total of 40 free-throw attempts by the Wildcats, then factor in the Hogs getting destroyed on the boards (44-29), points-in-the-paint (46-32), and fast-break points (24-4) – and it all conspired for a 97-71 final score in favor of the Lexington D-league all-stars.

It’s a bright spot for Arkansas that Barford put together back-to-back productive games, and on the road no less. And though Kingsley is still struggling to be the scorer he was last season (15.9 points on 54.8% field-goal shooting in ’15-’16, but only 11.3 points on 45.3% field-goal shooting so far this season), he did have 21 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, and 3 steals in the two road games combined.

Macon, who is now the Hogs’ leading scorer at 14.1 points-per-game, scored 15 points in each road game while doing many of the little things at both ends that make him the team’s best all-around player. Beard had arguably his best game as a Hog — 16 points — in the win over Tennessee, but injured his shoulder in that game which may have led to his woeful 1-of-7 field-goal shooting and 4 points against Kentucky.

Hannahs, last season’s leading scorer at 16.5 points-per-game, had comparable scoring numbers early in this season, but has fallen off in the Hogs’ last 6 or 7 games to an average of 13.9 points-per-game. His shooting efficiency is down this year, but he’s capable of going off at all 3 levels against anybody. His 11 second-half points in the win over Tennessee were huge — he scored 13 total in the game — and he got the second-half buckets on a couple of triples and a couple of nifty, running mid-range shots around the lane. Then at Kentucky, Hannahs was only 2-of-12 from the field and finished with 6 points.

So, here we are at the midway point of the season, and the biggest takeaway is that the guards attack the basket, and that leads to buckets or free-throw attempts. When the spacing and ball movement are good, the driving lanes get bigger and easier to finish. The constant offensive pressure created by the guards helps the defense, too, because teams tire trying to defend the Hogs’ guards.

Arkansas needs Kingsley to continue to make strides on the offensive end — the improvement is there even if incremental — and they need him to be productive in both halves of games. And they definitely need more production from the combo-4 duo of Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook.

Lack of a true point guard, unforced turnovers, inconsistency from 3, inconsistency in spacing and ball movement, and lack of front-court production are some of the remaining concerns on offense. On defense, the Hogs have held seven opponents below 40% field-goal shooting, and the rebounding, steals, and deflections have been other bright spots. But fouling, not forcing turnovers in high volume, not closing out on shooters, not cutting off penetration, not being sharp in hedges and rotations, and inconsistency in limiting offensive rebounds/2nd-chance points have ALL contributed to lapses on defense.

Another area that seems to be lacking is the absence of a true 3 — a swingman with some length and guard skill. Freshman C.J. Jones — 6-5, long, and athletic — looked to be the answer going back to the Spain exhibition games and early part of the season, but he simply hasn’t gotten off the bench much lately (he didn’t get on the floor in SEC play until the final seconds of the Kentucky game).

The 5-deep of veteran guards seems to have a lock hold on the rotation at the 3, but none of those guards is taller than 6-3, and none has the 3-point efficiency of Jones (55.6% on 10-of-18 from 3). He may be a defensive liability relative to the others right now — head coach Mike Anderson has talked about defense when asked why Jones hasn’t played more. The next couple of home games might be opportunities to work Jones into the rotation and see how much he has progressed.

But make no mistake, the homes games are not for experimenting, they are for winning. Whatever it takes. And don’t let the awful RPI numbers fool you. For example, Mississippi State is fresh off a monster road win against LSU, and the Bulldogs (10-4, 1-1 SEC) have won 4 of their last 5 games. The last time MSU faced the Hogs (Feb. 9, 2016), the Bulldogs won 78-46 in Starkville. Quinndary Weatherspoon, a 6-4 sophomore guard, is one of the best players in the SEC (17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals) and he tortured the Hogs last season. Former Little Rock Parkview guard I.J. Ready, a 5-11 senior, would love to taste victory for the first time at Bud Walton Arena against the home-state Hogs. Ready averages 10.5 points and 5.1 assists for MSU.

The storylines aren’t as sexy this week as they were last week, but the urgency to win is greater now. The Hogs were playing with house money in Lexington, and a win would have been sweet, but getting that W in Knoxville was a MUST. Ditto this week against two league foes that don’t turn heads unless they upset you in your house. No time for looking back or ahead, these are MUST wins for the Hogs.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

Bud Walton Arena

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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