The Razorback basketball players not named Marshawn Powell or BJ Young may not be aware, but Arkansas fans desperately want to love all of them.
Not everyone can be a star, but fans love role players. It’s an American sports tradition to praise the guys who are really good at doing one or two things that help the team win. These are the players who might not get much attention from the rest of the country, but become local legends.
Remember how fullback Keiro Small became one of the most popular players on the 2011 Razorback football team? Counting the number of face masks broken by Small was a message board staple. Brandon Burlsworth and his thick-framed glasses were fan favorites during Arkansas’ 1998 run.
Even on the legendary 1994 Razorback basketball team, the team to which every ensuing Arkansas basketball team has been unfairly compared, was stocked full of those types of players. As much as fans love Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, you’re as likely to find fans tell you their favorite player from that team was Corey Beck or Al Dillard or Dwight Stewart.
If the rest of the current basketball team is unable to fill these types of roles, this team will simply go as far as Powell and Young can take them. That’s what we saw in this first week of SEC play. Young’s stat lines in the Texas A&M and Vanderbilt games were astonishingly similar, but the difference in the two games was the play of Powell. The game against the Aggies may have been the worst of Powell’s career, and it resulted in easily the team’s most disappointing game of the season*, but he turned around and provided one of the best games of his career against Vanderbilt, and Arkansas won easily.
*Yes, since A&M went to Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky a few days later, perhaps basketball fans weren’t giving A&M enough credit (in fact, Arkansas’ RPI ranking has gone up simply because A&M won in Lexington), but it was still a putrid performance.
But even though the Razorbacks blew out the Commodores, the team still only scored 56 points. Hunter Mickelson was the next-highest scorer with six points. No one else even had five.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of all of it is that fans know what some of those guys are capable of doing. They’ve shown us. When Young was suspended for the season opener against Sam Houston State, Coty Clarke scored 20 points and Mickelson pitched in 11. Mickelson also scored 16 against Robert Morris. Those are games Arkansas probably doesn’t win without those performances. Both players have also had double digit rebound games this season, but none since New Year’s Day.
We’ve written about Mardracus Wade’s up and down season before, and the Vanderbilt game was probably the lowest of his down points. But the junior guard still has scored 10+ points five times this season, and even though his three point stroke hasn’t been as effective as last year, he has at times shown an ability to get to the free throw line. Fans were hopeful freshman Anthlon Bell would join Wade as a deadly knockdown shooter, but Bell has also had trouble being consistent. He’s had a few good games but went 0-5 against Vanderbilt.
Fans would love to see Rashad Madden develop more into the player everyone thought he would be coming out of high school. Madden is capable of great plays, and a foot injury did hamper him during a stretch of non-conference play, but it’s hard to see where he’s improved from his freshman year. Some of these development questions fall on the coaches, as Madden is certainly not the only player leaving fans concerned with improvement questions. Ricky Scott is in the same boat. How some of these players progress through conference play is a big storyline to follow the rest of the season.
Possibly the player with the biggest noticeable improvement is Kikko Haydar. And fans love Haydar for it. He’s gone from being just another walk-on at the end of the bench to leading the team in three-point shooting percentage. He even scored 13 points against Michigan.
Being consistent is all very much easier said than done. I don’t understand why every tee shot of mine isn’t long and straight but it feels like they should be. That’s typically the role I play in scramble tournaments. I’m there for the tee shot. Not every basketball player needs to score a bunch of points. Some players can focus on rebounding, some on defense, some on passing, and some simply for leadership.
In essence, each player can create their own identity through their respective role. That’s what brings fans out of their seats and wins games. Powell and Young are the team leaders in points, rebounds, and assists. They need more help but it hasn’t happened in the first two conference games. The rest of the team has proven they’re capable of stepping up, and we’re all just waiting for that to happen.