Jim Harris: Road Stumbles Are Just the Norm For Razorback Basketball


Razorback basketball road woes

No one will be shocked, will they, if Arkansas Razorback basketball team dispatches Florida on Saturday and dumps the all-world freshmen of Kentucky on Tuesday night? After all, those games will be played in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, where Arkansas was won 24 straight games — and, really, only Final Four participant Syracuse last year has been able to get the measure of Mike Anderson’s program in BWA in almost two full years now.

Yes, when Anderson takes a team on the road, it tends to look horrible. This was true during most of his time at Missouri too, before he took the Hogs’ job in 2011. Arkansas fans had reason to believe it would be different Wednesday night in College Station, Texas, for these Hogs, but alas, it was nearly a carbon-copy of last year’s opening Southeastern Conference game. The longer that game went, the worse Arkansas looked. We fully expected the Razorbacks couldn’t take their outside shooting on this first real road trip of the season, we just thought the one-footers would be easier to handle than an awful 8-for-19 from point-blank range.

Arkansas’ so-called defense forced Texas A&M into SEVEN turnovers. We were left wondering after that 69-53 drubbing: What purpose does it survive to trap ball-handlers out front when it doesn’t force mistakes or quick shots, but instead gives ups wide-open jumpers or layups? Away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton, Arkansas was once again completely lost on defense with little to know rotation, while its offense managed to botch 20 points while looking like a youth basketball team in the paint. Arkansas’ rebounding on the road was an improvement, considering the woeful shooting, but it’s the result of additional long arms in its freshman class and not because the Hogs ever get a body on an opponent and outfight the foe that way.

Understandably, there were plenty of upset callers to the talk-shows and posters to the message boards on Thursday. The echoing refrain was that we were seeing the “same-ol, same-ol.”

Yes, it’s been Arkansas’ way for more than a decade now, to seldom win on the road. Of course, under previous head coaches Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, fans weren’t sure Arkansas would perform well at home either.

In Mike Anderson’s case, the Hogs seem at times to perform other-worldly, like they should be Top 5 material and a certain at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament, which makes this Jeckyl and Hyde act all the more disconcerting. If Anderson had an average team at home, it would figure the road would be a regular disaster. But how does one regularly see upwards of 30-point swings between a home game and a road result with the same opponent?

One positive from the A&M loss was that Arkansas was only saddled with 18 fouls, just three more than the Aggies committed on Wednesday. In the past, with all the reaching and grabbing that the Hogs’ defense employed, those road totals might ease up toward 25 fouls for Arkansas and a major discrepancy in points scored from the line by each team. Arkansas didn’t reach the foul stripe much Wednesday, but that seemed more the result of a willingness of most of the team, outside of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, to avoid driving into traffic — when they did, though, it was often a turnover.

Average shooting teams never travel well, but it can be offset by solid defense, which Arkansas simply doesn’t play. The Razorbacks’ game plan for A&M seemed odd considering the shooting difficults the Aggies have demonstrated even at home this season. Arkansas’ perimeter players were in A&M’s face but were easily beaten to the basket or were suckered by the pick and roll plays. When they double teamed a guard out front, no one rotated quickly enough to the guard’s first passing option, and that player often nailed a wide-open 3-pointer.

A&M is not as horrible as its 20-point home loss to North Texas might have indicated, but let’s not confuse the Aggies with a good team either, or with swingman Alex Caruso being a superstar in the making. A&M went stretches where its ball-handling in the forecourt was abysmal., and the Hogs had a couple of little runs in both halves to look competitive. It was never long enough, though, to make A&M look completely uncomfortable. Somebody was usually wide open in the half-court and Caruso or others found him.

And when it came to playing straight-up man-to-man defense, the kind that real NCAA Tournament teams play, once again Arkansas wasn’t up to the challenge. The Hogs couldn’t answer that on the offensive end either, opening the game with not even one screen for at least the first five minutes against A&M’s man-to-man.

It was as if Arkansas had never taken its game out of Bud Walton Arena – and of course, outside of four “neutral court” games, the Hogs haven’t. Outside of the three-game November trip to Maui, where the Hogs played Cal, Minnesota (the only win) and Gonzaga, only two teams of real note — SMU and Clemson — on the nonconference schedule were set for early in the season. The three weeks leading up to SEC play were packed with Christmas cupcakes in Bud Walton and one trip to North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena, where the largest Arkansas “home” crowd helped carry the Hogs to a 72-60 win over a South Alabama team that lost 65-60 on Thursday night at UALR’s smaller venue.

All that the likes of Savannah School of Fine Cuisine, Hiland Dairy, Bank of Tennessee’s coed team, and San Antonio School for the Blind showed was that Arkansas famously could dunk it 50 or more times and occasionally hit wide-open shots while giving up its share too. The many defensive mistakes against these teams (OK, seriously, Southeastern Louisiana, Savannah State, Tennessee-Martin, High Point, UTSA) were easy to overlook because the Hogs overwhelmed them on the other end. Clemson, which also started with a horrible slate of foes, doesn’t look nearly as potent now.

Arkansas rode that joke of a schedule, not taking once chance in 13 games to play a real road game, right into a trap at College Station: a well-coached team with decent but not great players who played hard and could execute and made fewer defensive mistakes. It really wasn’t hard to see what was coming.

The fact is, these Hogs still may not be a good team (and hence why the schedule was made out like it was). Anderson’s deliberate pace in rebuilding this program means he still won’t have his own high-regarded point guard in place until year four, next season. The shooters Anderson counts on to beat zones aren’t really that good against man-t0-man defense, it turns out, and are sporadic at best if the opponent slips in a zone look here and there. Michael Qualls’ big nights against the cream puffs were fool’s gold, too; there’s no player with great scoring talent to light up a solid foe with a 25- to 30-point night, although the freshman Portis might get there someday. Also, like him or hate him, the departed B.J. Young had terrific speed and ability and at least brought the ability to go off on a good team every few games. Yes, this team is happier and better in overall character without him, but they’re also without a guy who can take over a game too.

Now, they’re a fun team to watch, to be sure; more enjoyable to follow (at least at home) than any team since Nolan Richardson was excused from his head coaching job by former chancellor John White. We were told by Anderson that they were mentally tougher and better able to handle the road obstacles, but Wednesday night told us otherwise, though eight more SEC road trips remain.

For now, the Hogs are back at home, where they feel like they are ferocious. Florida is gimpy right now, and Kentucky’s newest crop of freshman wunderkinds aren’t the level of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of two years ago.

Anderson had better hope his team maintains its killer edge at home, though, because it’s back to the road at tough Tennessee and Georgia next week, and A&M isn’t at their level.







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