Arkansas junior guard Jaylen Barford / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
After dropping back-to-back games for the first time this season and losing three of their first four SEC games, the Arkansas Razorbacks bounced back last Saturday taking what may be their only “gimme” on the SEC schedule.
The Razorbacks (13-4, 2-3 SEC) rolled over a woeful Missouri (5-11, 0-4) squad in Walton Arena. The Hogs won 92-73, which should help the Razorbacks’ confidence, but in watching the game, it was hard to tell if the Hogs were actually playing better because Missouri was so bad.
Fans should always enjoy a blowout victory, but also remember that sometimes a game of that nature can be fool’s gold. There’s not another team in the SEC that’s playing as poorly as Missouri, although some fans at Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn might argue that point.
However, if my suspicion that Missouri is the worst team in the SEC is correct, then everything that came so easy last Saturday against the Tigers will be tougher as the Razorbacks negotiate their way through the rest of the regular season.
Yes, the Hogs do play the Tigers again this season on Feb. 4, but Missouri will be more competitive in Columbia, Mo., than they were at Walton Arena last Saturday. The Tigers would have to be, wouldn’t they?
The one thing that was absolutely better in terms of the Hogs’ performance Saturday was their aggressiveness, and that pleased Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson. A team can’t play his style of basketball well and be passive.
Now, it would be a mistaken to say Arkansas has played passively thus far in SEC play, but in their three losses, they have been caught in situations where they were reacting to instead of instigating the action. Kentucky and Florida are talented enough teams that you can understand that happening, but Mississippi State taking it to the Hogs on their home floor was a bit of a surprise.
The way Anderson prefers to play, the Razorbacks should be setting the tone for energy and aggressive play rather than trying to match the opponent’s. The Hogs did accomplish that against Missouri. Hopefully they will build off that.
The Razorbacks’ aggressiveness was evident on a play where Anton Beard flashed for a steal and dove on the hardwood to gain possession off the ball. He had the presence of mind to notice fellow guard Daryl Macon snowbirding toward the rim at the opposite end. On the floor, Beard did his best Hunter Henry impression and tossed the ball behind his head to Macon, who snatched it slammed it home. The play stood out enough nationally to make ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day that night, coming in at No. 8.
What Anderson desperately wants is that kind of aggressive, instinctive, and alert play for 40 minutes each night from all of his players.
Obviously that’s an impossible goal to reach, but the closer the Razorbacks can come to it, the better they will be.
This Razorbacks team is more talented and deeper than last year’s, but they aren’t talented enough to coast at all. Not even for a second.
If the Hogs are going to be an NCAA Tournament team, they are going to have scrap, fight, and grab for everything they want, each night out. They aren’t only going to have to play hard, but also play smarter than their opponents.
It’s difficult for them to do that just now because they are still playing like a collection of players rather than a team. A lot of that has to do with seven new players trying to gel together with the returning players, but a lot of it also has to do with the lack of a true point guard.
Beard, Macon, Jaylen Barford, and Dusty Hannahs are all talented offensive players, but none of them are instinctive or natural point guards.
With the ball in hand, they are looking to score or pass the ball so they can reset back into scoring position. There is nothing wrong with that, but Arkansas’ recruiting slipped up left a hole at the point spot.
In the Hogs’ motion offense, they don’t necessarily need one guy to dominate the basketball and set the table for the rest of the team, but they do need players who will give up a little of their offensive game to free up a teammate, particularly if one has the hot hand. Sometimes there is a reluctance to do that.
Against solid and disciplined defensive teams, one-on-one type play isn’t going to work. None of the Razorbacks are that offensively talented.
Similarly, the Razorbacks’ defensive efforts have yet to gel. The Hogs guards have a difficult time stopping the basketball in transition. Some of that has to do with how slowly the entire team reacts to a change of possession and some of it has to do with skill.
A lot of the Razorbacks’ issues deal with the mental aspect of the game more so than the physical, and while players can be trained mentally, it’s sometimes difficult to do within the course of a season. It’s even harder when there is not a distinct on-the-floor leader among the players.
Before the season started it would have seemed likely that Moses Kingsley or Hannahs would step into that leadership role. It hasn’t really happened. Manuale Watkins is another senior, who does play smart ball, but he’s more of glue guy than a leader. We’ll just have to see if a leader does emerge.
That being said, the Razorbacks have the opportunity to possibly string together a few victories this week.
The Razorbacks travel to College Station, Texas, to face Texas A&M at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Aggies are struggling at 9-7 overall and 1-4 in SEC play. The Razorbacks then host LSU at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers are also 9-7 overall and 1-4 in SEC play.
The Razorbacks need to win both to bob their head above .500 in league play before facing another road swing at Vanderbilt (8-9, 2-3) on Jan. 24 and at Oklahoma State (10-7, 0-5 Big 12) at 3 p.m. for a nonconference affair.
My hopes is that we’ll be talking about what a great roll the Razorbacks are on going into February. It could happen if the Razorbacks continue to raise the level of their defensive play and work more as a team on offense rather than free agents.