Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
I know Mike Anderson must get tired of being compared to his mentor Nolan Richardson. He’s been a successful head coach for years now. He’s won more than enough and proven over and over that he is his own man.
However, last Saturday, the Arkansas Razorbacks head basketball coach pulled a classic Nolan move out of his bag of tricks, and it worked splendidly.
Anderson knows the greatest power a coach possesses in his arsenal is playing time and along with the pride that player’s take in being a starter. Those are meaningful commodities when attitudes need to be adjusted.
Anderson started senior Willy Kouassi in place of Moses Kingsley last Saturday in the Hogs’ 85-67 rout of Tennessee. The shakeup energized Kouassi, who had played little in recent games, and it sent the message to Kingsley that he needs to cool his jets just a bit to be as effective as he needs to be for the Razorbacks.
Kingsley’s frustration from being pushed, hacked and double-teamed in SEC play has been more and more noticeable as the season has rolled along. You could see it on his face and in his body language every time a call did not go his way. Evidently, those around him could hear it too because the junior, who has made great strides in his play over the last year, picked up technical fouls during crucial moments in close losses at LSU (76-74) on Jan. 16 and at Florida (87-83) on Feb. 3.
Now, Arkansas did not lose those games because of Kingsley’s technical fouls. The Razorbacks made other critical mistakes in those games and failed to capitalize on opportunities that were in their grasp.
However, when a player gets so noticeably frustrated as Kingsley has done, it becomes part of his reputation with officials, and it becomes part of opponents’ scouting reports.
Kingsley is a presence on defense, and he’s developed into a potent weapon on offense. Teams are going to do whatever they can in an attempt to neutralize him.
Just as Razorback offensive tackle Dan Skipper saw opposing players get in his face and antagonize him more and more when he drew a couple of personal fouls during his sophomore season, no doubt opponents have made a point of being extra physical with Kingsley because they know it takes him out of his game.
Officials are human, and if a player shows a negative tendency, they are going to be more aware of it. The awareness could result in less leeway for the big man during the course of the game. It’s like when you notice an imperfection in anything, it tends to draw your eye.
By bringing Kingsley off the bench, Anderson sent a direct message to the young man. Once he entered the game, the junior scored 17 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in a smooth 21 minutes on the court. He didn’t pout; he just went to work. It was the perfect response.
Officials around the SEC, no doubt, noticed the move, too. It sent the message them that Anderson realized there was an issue, and that he was addressing it. Kingsley must continue to channel his frustration in constructive ways on the court, but at least the officials know it’s something he and his coach are working to improve.
The lineup shakeup also sends a message to the Razorbacks across the board. All the Hogs need to play the game with the right attitude. Arkansas has other big men, but none bring the combination of offensive and defensive firepower to the floor that Kingsley does. If Anderson will bench Moses, he’ll bench anyone.
It also lets a role player like Kouassi know that Anderson respects what he brings to the team, and that he could call on him at any time to get the job done. Kouassi did respond as a defensive presence and by grabbing four rebounds and tipping in a bucket.
Anderson noted following the blowout of Tennessee that his backups played well and that their play would make the difference in the outcome of this season one way or another. Anderson’s program is built on nine to 11 players making key contributions. How well the bench plays down the stretch will be pivotal to Arkansas’ success or lack there of this season.
The victory moved the Hogs to 12-11 on the season and 5-5 in SEC play with eight regular-season games to play. The Hogs are mired in the middle of the SEC pack, three games out of first place behind league leading LSU, which holds an 8-2 record.
Texas A&M, South Carolina and Kentucky are a game behind the Tigers at 7-3. Florida and Georgia are 6-4. The Hogs, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are all 5-5, just ahead of Tennessee and Alabama at 4-6.
If the Hogs are going to make a move forward in the league race, now is the time to do it. The outcome of these next four games may very well determine if the Razorbacks can work their way onto the NIT bubble.
The Razorbacks make a tour of Mississippi this week, starting with a trip Tuesday to Starkville, Miss. to play the Bulldogs at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network. The Hogs defeated Mississippi State, 82-68, at Walton Arena on Jan. 9, but we know that the outcome of that game means very little going into this one.
From there the Hogs move on to face Ole Miss at 1 p.m. Saturday in Oxford for an ESPNU-televised game. The following week Auburn (Feb. 17) and Missouri (Feb. 20) visit Walton Arena.
Winning outside of Walton Arena has proven difficult for the Hogs thus far this season. They are 1-9 in games away from Walton Arena, but smarter more disciplined play could have yielded victories in any number of those games.
The Razorbacks are talented, but not talented enough to survive lazy passes, mental mistakes and an overall lack of focus.
The season has come to the point where the Razorbacks will have to crank their level of play up a notch or two or they will begin to fade away. A .500 record down the stretch probably won’t get them into any form of postseason play, and considering LSU (Feb. 23) and South Carolina (March 5) have dates with the Razorbacks in Walton Arena, the likelihood of winning out at home isn’t great.
Two victories this week on the road would be a huge step forward for this team, and would set them up for a very interesting stretch run. A split would be a decent week; however, if the Hogs drop both games? Well, let’s not even consider that.