Arkansas junior guard Jaylen Barford / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Over the last week, Arkansas fans have arguably seen the best and the worst of the 2017 Razorbacks basketball team.
The Razorbacks played splendidly Tuesday night, blowing a solid Alabama squad out of Walton Arena, 87-68. However, just four days before, the Hogs looked dead on their feet as Oklahoma State ripped the Razorbacks apart, 99-71, at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
It’s mindboggling how the same team can look so good one night, but so bad just four days earlier.
Obviously, the opponents must be considered. Oklahoma State is mired in the bottom third of the very strong Big 12 Conference, while Alabama ranks in the top fourth of the relatively mild SEC.
Is the Big 12 really that much better than the SEC?
On the floor, the two leagues split the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, 5-5, but there is no doubt the Big 12 is the better league. Oklahoma State’s January league schedule has been top heavy, and for that matter, Alabama’s SEC schedule is more rigorous in February than it was in January.
The Cowboys had extra incentive to play well last Saturday as the school was honoring the memory of eight players and staffers and two pilots who died in a 2001 plane crash. With that type of emotion fueling the players, the Cowboys were going to be tough for any team to beat.
The Razorbacks’ sorry performance against the Cowboys last Saturday might have lulled a young Alabama team into overconfidence as they entered Walton Arena on Tuesday. Tide coach Avery Johnson said following the game that he warned his squad not to take the Razorbacks lightly based on their play against Oklahoma State.
No doubt, it was important to the Razorbacks to perform better against Alabama after playing so poorly in Stillwater.
Analyzing those two games might be a fruitless endeavor. The outcomes of both may simply be outliers that a statistician would throw out to get a true view of the team. However, whatever buttons Arkansas coach Mike Anderson pushed to motivate his Razorbacks between the OSU loss and the Alabama victory, he probably should keep pushing.
The difference in the performance was night and day. Arkansas was the aggressor against the Crimson Tide from tipoff to the final buzzer. For two-thirds of the first half Alabama rolled with the punches pretty well. In fact, the Crimson Tide held the Razorbacks without a field goal for more than eight minutes at one juncture in the first half, but were unable to take advantage because of the Razorbacks’ defensive effort kept them from doing so. The Hogs led 35-27 at halftime despite shooting just 38.5 percent from the field.
When Arkansas found their offensive equilibrium in the second half, the blowout was on. The Crimson Tide, known for their defense, couldn’t keep up as Jaylen Barford willed his way out of a scoring drought, getting all 13 of his points in the second half.
And, when Dusty Hannahs got hot, his teammates made a point of getting him the ball. The senior sharpshooter canned three three-pointers that turned the game on its head. Hannahs finished with 19 points in just 19 minutes on the floor.
Moses Kingsley only scored two baskets, but he kept Bama’s big men busy fouling him, and he made them pay at the free-throw line, hitting 11 of 12 freebies to score 15 points. He also contributed six rebounds and blocked two shots, while altering others.
Daryl Macon also bounced back from a poor showing against OSU, contributing 12 points, while Manny Watkins scored 10. The Hogs shot 57.6 percent from the field in the second half. Arkansas’ 87 points is the most Alabama has given up this season, and it was the 21st time the Hogs have scored more than 70 points this season.
While the game turned on a 28-8 offensive outburst by the Razorbacks, it was the defense that keyed the run. The Razorbacks’ press created havoc the Crimson Tide couldn’t handle. Alabama is a methodical offensive team that fell out of their comfort zone when the Razorbacks sped the game up.
Alabama’s big men melted down when the Hogs aggressively trapped them on the high and low post, and the Razorbacks did a fine job of closing out on shooters when Alabama was able to get the ball out of the traps. That’s something the Hogs have struggled to do successfully this season, which has forced Anderson to trap less this than he might have wanted.
The Razorbacks’ disruptive defense allowed them to play in transition, which is what they are best suited to do. Without a natural point guard, Arkansas’ offensive flow bogs down on the half court, and the Hogs generally resort to one-on-one attempts to score.
In transition, though, their offense flows more smoothly and the baskets are easier to come by. The Razorbacks also maintain their spacing better on the halfcourt when they ease into to their offense out of transition rather than walking the ball up the court.
That better flow led to 18 assists on the night. In the previous two games against Vanderbilt (6) and Oklahoma State (7), the Hogs had only 13 assists combined.
The wide-open play led to some fun with two alley oops to freshman forward Adrio Bailey. The first was truly spectacular as Barford lofted a perfect pass to the front of the rim just a few steps past halfcourt. Bailey nastily snatched the ball from the air and slammed it home with a single, sweeping motion.
Bailey played his next oop off the glass after a lob from Trey Thompson, who had three assists. Barford also punched home a powerful one-handed slam in that 28-8 flurry.
Anderson called the Alabama game one of the Hogs’ most solid performances of the year, and pointed out that it started with aggressive defensive play. Defensive effort is going to be the key for the Razorbacks if they are to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Not every team is going to wilt under the pressure like Alabama did. Some teams like playing at that speed and some are well coached and smart enough to take advantage of what the Razorbacks give up when they scramble on defense.
Teams like Florida and South Carolina, whom the Hogs still have to visit this month, probably aren’t going to be shaken up by the pressure for extended periods like Alabama was, particularly on their home floor.
But great defense opens the door to the Razorbacks being the best they can be this season. When they give great effort on defense, the Hogs are pretty tough.
As inconsistent as the Razorbacks have been this season, they have a 17-5 record and are now tied with Alabama for fourth in the SEC standings with a 6-3 conference mark.
The Razorbacks have nine regular season games left to play, and seven of those opponents are ranked at least two games behind them in the league standings. South Carolina (8-1) and Florida (7-2) are the two ahead of them. However, five of those nine games are on the road.
The Razorbacks have proven they can win on the road with victories at Nashville, Tenn.; College Station, Texas; and Knoxville, Tenn.; but it’s still difficult to win on the road.
The Razorbacks took advantage of Alabama when the Crimson Tide took the Hogs lightly. Anderson has to make sure the Hogs don’t fall into a similar trap on Saturday when they travel to Columbia, Mo., to face the Missouri Tigers at 5 p.m. in a game televised by the SEC Network.
The Tigers (5-16, 0-9 SEC) are a bad basketball team. They might be the worst Power 5 conference team in the nation, but the Hogs still can’t overlook them.
If the Razorbacks are going to develop into a team that is consistent, they have to learn to give the same effort regardless of the opponent. Successful teams set their own standard and play near that level every opportunity.
The Razorbacks have been riding that roller coaster lately. It would be nice if their level of performance could even out, more like a Ferris Wheel.