When football ended for us Hog fans way back in late November last year, I think many of us were a bit let down. Not just because the season was over, but because we expect the Razorbacks to be contenders (and with the beginning of this year’s recruiting class, we will be soon). But with football over, it was an easy transition to gear up for basketball. Even that, though, was going to be tough knowing that we had an extremely young and inexperienced basketball team hitting the floor.
The crazy thing is that our kiddos did some quick work to make us believe that all that youth and inexperience wasn’t a big deal. After an early stumble on the road at Missouri State, the Hogs were off to a quick 12-1 record and two HUGE wins over (then) top ten teams Oklahoma (still with only one loss, to us) and Texas (a team that’s imploding right now). Heading into conference play, while many of us were mocking the prediction of the SEC coaches and media that the Razorbacks would finish last in the SEC, several of us were very concerned as to why we weren’t ranked OR showing up on many NCAA Tournament Prediction charts.
Then, SEC play started. And we lost to Mississippi State. And Ole Miss. And Florida. And Auburn. But then we won the Alabama game and all was right, right? Wrong. Then we lost to LSU. And Tennessee. And again, the latest loss, to Mississippi State (a game where we had a double-digit lead at half).
So here we are, sitting on a 13-8 record (1-7 in SEC) and limping into the second half of our conference play. I say limping because our kids have been dealt a serious blow to their confidence. To have a 12-1 record after playing a semi-soft non-conference schedule, especially when one of those losses was to Missouri State, our kids’ confidence was teeming. The word is we weren’t even supposed to give Texas or OU a good game. But our kids either didn’t know that or didn’t care.
Now, however, we’re lucky if we see one good half of a basketball game. The word ‘overachieve’ isn’t spit out as much as it was earlier this year. The word ‘consistent’ has taken its place, for good reason. The Hogs are consistently NOT playing good games — or at least a full 40 minutes.
And here is how it all plays out. For a team that was pretty much assured a spot in the big dance, we have three scenarios to still make it.
- We win out the rest of conference play and wind up with a 21-8 (9-7 SEC) record.
- We win six, or more, of our last eight games and win at least two games in the SEC Tournament.
- We win four games in four days at the SEC Tournament.
The top two scenarios should leave us in good enough position to squeeze into the NCAAs (our non-conference play will help out there). The last scenario is our last chance, last hope, hail mary. If we have to, we can do it — we’ve done it before.
Positive scenarios aside, the likelihood of any of those three actually happening, in my opinion, are slim to none. Our kids, for as young/resilient as they are, aren’t winning right now and it’s affecting them. Coach Pelphrey is doing a good job at making sure they’re ready for every game, but the continued losses are beating our kids up. A good home win would be nice, a road win would be contagious.
Neither of those things could happen for a while. That’s because teams/coaches in the SEC have figured out how to break down the Razorbacks. And here’s a few reasons why we’re having a hard time:
- A serious lack of height and depth. When Moore was suspended and Monk was questioned about eligibility, that hurt us — and continues to do so. In the off season, we need to get some more height on the team and more experience.
- No traditional big man. I’ve said it before and here it is again, Michael Washington, who’s having a GREAT year, is not a traditional big man. He’s learning how to play down low, by default, but his bread and butter is one-on-one isolation about 10 feet from the goal. From there, he can spot up and shoot over you, or blow by you en route to the basket. Double-team him defensively and he’s going to suffer. He should hit the big man camp in the summer.
- Zone-busting. This has gotten better over the past few games, but when teams figured out that our three-point shooting was suspect, they locked in their zone defense and made us shoot over it. Luckily, our shooting has become better, but don’t expect teams to switch this any time soon.
- Perimeter defense. This could be one of the biggest achilles heels for us — lack of height on the perimeter. Mississippi State made a record 16 three-pointers against us. Sixteen! Until our guars are all lock-down defenders, it doesn’t matter if their offensive counter-point gets the ball because they’ll just shoot over us. Fortson, Clarke, Welsh and Britt aren’t going to grow much anymore — so their defense will have to become better in denying the ball.
- Hustle/Concentration is sometimes there, sometimes not. We’ve had our struggles with all of the following: rebounding (both offensive and defensive), turnovers, and assists. Playing good defense is one piece of the puzzle. Blocking out your man and rebounding is another. Some of our offensively-minded guards (ahem, Clarke) need to start playing a complete game on both ends of the court.
In my opinion, we’re not going to win half of our remaining SEC games. We might win one, maybe two, in the SEC Tournament, but that won’t be enough to get us into the big dance. Then it’ll be up to Pel if we want to play in the NIT (if we were invited, I think it would be good experience).
So what started off as a potential great season has come down in a hurry. But we all should’ve been a bit more leery of such a hot start. As we’ve said over and over this season, our kids are extremely young and have a serious lack of experience. And here’s the silver lining. They all return next year (except Monk) and we should be a LOT better than this year.
Keep your heads up Hog fans, and you too Hog players. We’re still going to be right behind you, cheering you on — sometimes we just need a break to be kids and have a hissy fit.