Doc Harper: Razorback Basketball Made Progress, Still Underachieved

Let’s start with the positive.

The Razorbacks earned their first winning SEC season since 2008.  That’s not an insignificant achievement.  Anytime you win more than you lose you’re doing some things right.

A big part of the reason Arkansas kept winning at home throughout February is that the team didn’t hit a wall and collapse like previous years.  The Hogs lost five of their last six games last year, and that included a 30 point home loss to Florida, another blowout home loss to Alabama and a home loss to Ole Miss after Arkansas blew a double-digit second-half lead. Those types of embarrassments didn’t happen this season, and the team deserves credit for it.

Arkansas Razorback basketball was involved in possibly-real NCAA Tournament bubble discussion up through the second Missouri game. That hasn’t happened in several years. It may be sad that being listed on Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” list (not to be confused with the “First Four Out”) as late as March represents progress, but it does in this situation and was exciting while it lasted.

There was obvious improvement from many players throughout the year, particularly among some of the newcomers. Michael Qualls started the season as the guy who’d come in during garbage time of a non-conference blowout and throw down a YouTube dunk, and ended the year as a reliable contributor who started five games. Anthlon Bell didn’t even enter the game for a few conference games, but ended the year knocking down 14  three-point shots in the last 7 games. Coty Clarke came on strong enough to permanently take Hunter Mickelson’s place in the starting lineup beginning with the Alabama game.

Some of the returning players improved as well. Marshawn Powell became a legit three point threat (even if his accuracy faded late in the year), which helped him become one of the more feared players in the conference. After serving a suspension for the South Carolina game, Rashad Madden shed his reputation as a turnover waiting to happen and became a reliable point guard, committing only one turnover in the final six games and, promisingly, scoring 26 points in the final four games.

But all that being said, this team should have been in the NCAA Tournament.

I don’t believe this team wasn’t talented enough. I don’t believe this team was too young. I believe this team blew far too many opportunities to beat bad teams on the road to be taken seriously on a national level.

Don’t tell me Arkansas didn’t have the talent or experience to beat South Carolina in Columbia, Texas A&M in College Station, LSU in Baton Rouge, or Vanderbilt in Nashville (twice).  They may not have been ready to beat Michigan, Florida, or Missouri away from home, but they could have beaten those other teams if the Hogs hadn’t come out flat and rallied too late, or failed to show up at all.  They had a 15-3 lead against South Carolina, but lost the final 35 minutes by a score of 72 to 39. They allowed LSU to build a 22 point lead in the first half before not quite coming all the way back in the final minutes.

That’s why Arkansas isn’t in the NCAA Tournament.

Any team that has two players who could legitimately leave early to play professionally should be able to at least make the tournament. If a team doesn’t even make the NIT, then this is a situation similar to how every terrible high school team has a best player whose opinions of his own talents are amplified by virtue of the weak talent surrounding him on the team. Half the fans watching the games wonder why more colleges don’t come around for their best player because he’s clearly better than all those other players on the court. But the reality is that they’re not that great as evidenced by lack of team success, and they should probably make sure they get a degree before they head out into the professional world.

But the Arkansas team wasn’t that bad. Out of all the big home wins, the only time the Razorbacks truly played out of their minds was against Florida. They didn’t appear to do anything amazing against Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Kentucky, they just appeared to play competently, which didn’t happen on the road.

Arkansas may not have been talented enough to be considered a contender for an SEC Championship or a top NCAA seed, but they were talented enough to make the tournament. And in college basketball, there’s really not such a thing anymore as being “too young” in major conferences.  Of the eight players named to the All-SEC first team, only two were seniors. Of the 17 players on the first and second team, 10 were juniors or sophomores. The six Razorbacks who played the most minutes this season were all juniors or sophomores.

What’s as troubling as the bad losses is the play of some of the Arkansas players. It is well-documented that BJ Young and Mardracus Wade both shot significantly worse this season than last season (although Wade began to show signs of improvement in late games). Both were maddeningly inconsistent. For example, Young scored in single digits eight times, between 10-20 points 14 times, and over 20 points nine times. You never knew what you were going to get.

Hunter Mickelson completely disappeared shortly after being replaced in the starting lineup by Clarke. Mickelson averaged more than 7 points per game during the first 22 games, even scoring in double digits 5 times, but could only muster 1.8 points over the final 10 games while only once scoring more than two points.

Mickelson started the first 19 games before Clarke replaced him. Perhaps Mike Anderson could sense Mickelson was about to hit a wall, or perhaps being taken out of the starting lineup shook Mickelson’s confidence. Whatever the reason, Mickelson’s lack of production at the end of the year effectively negated some of the much-needed bump at the end of the year provided by other players like Qualls or Bell.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to me was that Young and Powell were held out of the starting lineup for the final game at home. Afterward, Anderson alluded to team rules that needed to be followed, and it felt like it meant that once the NCAA at-large bid was out of the picture, the players just mailed it in. As if they felt they had no chance of making any noise at the SEC Tournament. It’s incredibly disheartening to have the impression that tournament time doesn’t get everybody excited because this is the most exciting time of the year. Even if Arkansas didn’t win the tournament, they still could have played Kentucky on Friday and there was a chance they could have played Missouri on Saturday. That would have been awesome. But the entire team clearly wasn’t focused at the end of the regular season and came out flat, again, against Vanderbilt. As a result, Texas A&M now has more wins in the last five SEC Tournaments than Arkansas.

The Razorbacks made progress this season in many ways, and that’s terrific. But it’s possible to make progress while still failing to live up to potential, and it feels like that’s what happened this year. Stan Heath made progress each year until Ronnie Brewer departed for the NBA, but he ultimately lost games people believed he should have won and that was his downfall.

We won’t have to wait long to see if the team can turn things around away from Bud Walton next season, as Arkansas will travel to Hawaii to participate in the Maui Invitational in November. They’ll get to play three games there and winning just one of them should ease at least some concerns going into the year. But lose all three, and there will certainly be tons of empty seats in Bud Walton next season, each one serving as a haunting reminder of what used to be.

Doc Harper is the managing editor of Arkansas Expats and is a regular contributor to College Football News and Sporting Life Arkansas. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter.

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  • meh

    tenn, kent, ole miss, and possibly bama all have better rosters than the hogs. ole miss is lucky to be in the dance, but the reality is arkansas was only a couple of games behind those other teams, and our SEC schedule was pretty difficult. the upside there was we had more chances to impress, but we just dont have a solid roster. we do not have NCAA tournament players. best players down low? 6-7 small forwards playing out of position. best shooter? Wade was recruited for his defense, had a weird year where everything just dropped, and now people say he is in “slump.” Madden, Mick, Scott, Kikko? do these guys ever play significant minutes for anyone other than maybe Georgia, SC, or Miss St? doubtful.

    powell and bj get way too much hype, as did pels final recruiting class that MA inherited, whose crown jewel was a player he avoided like the plague. BJ and Marshawn disappear from games, and thats about the worst thing you can say about two players who are supposed to be your best. Mike is stuck with a core of players that had committed to a previous coach. we’ve already seen Mike’s freshmen flash more upside than any crop we’ve had since some of Heaths classes. Why people believed this was our year to bust back onto the scene is beyond me.

    • Doc Harper

      But Arkansas did have the players to beat Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Are you saying that they didn’t have the players to beat South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, or LSU? I don’t buy that.

      • meh

        Elston Turner is lightyears ahead of BJ at G, and if he played at BWA, aTm probably sweeps us. we beat Tenn without their starting G as well, and that Mizzou win was suspect. id say we won just as many games as we lost that we shouldnt have. makes for a frustrating season (like 2008/9), but we had some fun.

        just because we split with Florida and Missouri doesnt mean we are as talented as they are. its plain as day. Yeah, we beat Tenner, but they are clearly a more balanced team, inside-out, even without maymon. henderson/holloway/buckner for ole miss > young/powell/?. I think we’re right there with Bama, but they benefited from a soft SEC schedule. does anyone really think arkansas is as talented as Kentucky? even without Noel? (a case could be made team chemistry-wise, but not position-by-position)

        i honestly dont see any case being made for the hogs roster to be considered on par with any of the teams who finished above us in the standings, save Bama. just look at the players. are we taller than most SEC teams? not even close. are we stronger than most SEC teams? we are underdeveloped compared to most SEC teams. well, at least do we have some good guards that can shoot? we were one of the worst shooting % teams in the league.

        and yet, we’re above .500 for the first time in forever, got some legit players coming in (Harris is built like a player we havent had since Townes/Thomas), and a coach that at least has us winning at home. i think people see how close it was this year, and assume we are further along than we are, instead of seeing the positive in this, knowing our roster is flawed and slowly being rebuilt.

      • Doc Harper

        I’m not arguing that Arkansas was more talented than those teams. They were picked to finish 5th in the preseason and I think that’s fair.

        But my point is that if Arkansas was talented enough to beat all those teams one time, even if they’d lose a 7 game series, they’re talented enough to beat some of those awful teams on the road.

        I never expected to beat the top teams on the road, but losing to all the awful teams sans Auburn are why Arkansas isn’t playing this week. And they had the talent to beat those teams.

      • meh

        well, im not too sure a few more road wins over SEC scrubs wouldve gotten us in. 2 road wins over any combo of low-tiered aTm, vandy, usc, or lsu might have put us solidly in the “First Four Out” category. mizzou had a terrible road record, but at least had some nice OCC wins. our failure in november really hurt us. a win over ASU or WIsky in Vegas, plus those road Ws would have put us in the field for sure. but i still think thats alot to ask of our current team.

  • Brian

    Agree with u Doc but not enough emphasis is put where it should be, in my opinion, the failure of coach A to lead them to wins in the games where they had the talent to do so. If he doesn’t get us in the trny next year I think it will b time for a change.

  • nchogg

    I don’t agree Brian. I think Coach Anderson should have 5 years. It took Coach Richardson time to get his style going. So many fans were very happy and pushing for the Coach Anderson hire. Some fans were not. In either case lets give Coach Anderson the chance he deserves and give him 100% support.

  • Gregg

    Enough about talent. Yes, we had the talent to have a special year, but basketball is about more than talent. It’s about heart and grit and a winning desire. Sure, there was some of that on the team ie, kikko and qualls. But, not from enough from enough players.
    Do you follow these guys on twitter? everything is “get money” this and “get money” that. Never do these guys portray that winning is above money. And, only two of which have “money” talent, but unfortunately lack the heart and grit to will a team thru a slump much less a win.
    I think they put in work to make themselves better, not their team. And that is the biggest problem in college sports today. Too much selfishness. And i think that can be seen by a coach during recruitment. Duke obviously doesnt have this problem. and I believe Mike has it figured out too.
    To quote a friend of mine: “it takes a long time to get the stench of Failphrey out”
    Mike will recruit the right players to win. Not just talented players.

    • meh

      “it takes a long time to get the stench of Failphrey out”

      ha! thats excellent.

      Pel never figured out recruiting, and whatever “success” he may have had was because he took high rated players whom better coaches knew not to gamble on (ie. Mcdonald, Henry, Fortson), probably due to high pressure to start winning fast. He inherited a mess and did little to improve it. MA has proven to be a successful recruiter and coach, leaving programs in good standing. Indiana wouldnt be where they are had they not stood by Creen and allowed him a few seasons to work out the kinks, and we as Arkansas fans have to be patient and closely watch how the process plays out.

  • Mark

    Meh – go away. Enough already. Hog fans are looking for something positive about the season. And there were some real positives. So frak off. That being said there is no excuse for the road woes of the team.

    • meh

      how have i not been positive? by suggesting our fans be patient while MA brings in more talented players, while at the same time being proud of how our team, in my view, overachieved and gave us an interesting season?

      if you think im being negative about pointing out pretty obvious shortcomings on our roster, pour yourself another glass of kool-aid.