At least for the moment, the Arkansas Razorbacks have their signature win of the season. The Razorbacks’ 83-76 victory over No. 21 South Carolina at Columbia on Wednesday was a late Valentine’s gift for a frustrated fan base that had all but given up hope that their team would reach their projected potential.
While the win was by no means the final verdict for this Razorbacks squad, it was a message to fans, critics, the SEC, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and most importantly themselves that the Hogs aren’t going to go down quietly as the regular season rolls to a close.
Going into the season, many felt Arkansas coach Mike Anderson had collected enough talent for them to return to the NCAA Tournament. The major question was how long would it take for the team to gel?
That, of course, is a question the Razorbacks are still trying to answer, but the Hogs looked more like a team Wednesday than at any point this season.
It might have just been the circumstances of the game. South Carolina coach Frank Martin admitted his team practiced so poorly on Monday that he walked out of practice. He lamented that his team was broken after the game, indicating the loss was more about the Gamecocks’ poor play than the Razorbacks actually rising to the occasion and playing well enough to notch their first road win over a top-25 team since toppling Kentucky at Rupp Arena in 2014.
If downgrading his team in that manner lets Martin sleep at night, so be it, but the stats just don’t support his line of thinking. The Gamecocks played a solid game. But Anderson’s Razorbacks just outplayed them for the final two-thirds of a close game.
The Razorbacks shot 53.6 percent for the game to the Gamecocks’ 43.1 percent. Arkansas outrebounded South Carolina 32-29. Both teams were successful at forcing turnovers with South Carolina getting 13 from the Hogs, while suffering 12. Those key stats are fairly even except for the shooting percentage, and that’s where the Hogs won the game.
The Razorbacks made shots, and they held the Gamecocks to a reasonable shooting percentage. South Carolina only averages 41.9 percent shooting from the field. The Gamecocks make up for their mediocre field-goal percentage by going to the free-throw line an average of 23 times. Arkansas sent them there just 17 times, 6 less than their average. That’s a fairly critical stat in a 7-point ballgame, and it points to solid Razorbacks defense.
The Hogs played an effective 2-3 matchup zone for much of the game rather than man-to-man. Anderson’s mentor Nolan Richardson used to call it his nutshell defense. It still allows for traps on the wings and in the post, but it usually keeps defenders around the glass for better rebounding.
The scheme also positioned Moses Kingsley to block 4 shots and alter others around the rim instead of getting caught away from the basket on defensive switches in a man-to-man defense,
The Hogs turned their game around with the zone against Alabama at Walton Arena and played better at LSU when they switched into it. Maybe it should become the Hogs’ base defense for the rest of the season.
Martin’s Gamecocks got off to a great start, bolting out to a 15-point first-half lead, but the Razorbacks outscored the Gamecocks 25-2 before taking a nine-point halftime lead.
The game tightened in the second half, but the Razorbacks matched the Gamecocks and bettered them each time South Carolina made a move on the lead. The Razorbacks did that by hitting shots against one of the best defenses in the nation.
Going into the game I was not optimistic about Arkansas’ chances because of the Gamecock’s defensive play. However, South Carolina specializes in disrupting offenses and forcing teams to make one-on-one plays.
The Gamecocks accomplished that goal, but Arkansas’ offense has basically boiled down to several players making one-on-one plays. Ironically South Carolina’s usually sound defensive strategy played into the Razorbacks’ out-of-the-ordinary strength.
The Razorbacks average a solid 46.2 percent shooting from the field, but shot 53.6 against the Gamecocks, including 50 percent from the three-point line. Arkansas also capitalized at the free-throw line making 16 of 18.
Jaylen Barford kept the Hogs in the game early in the first half, scoring 17 of his 23 points, but when Dusty Hannahs, who scored 20, heated up with two treys and Kingsley, who scored 16, went to work inside, Arkansas went on their 25-2 run and turned the game around.
The Gamecocks elected not to double team Kingsley in the post as most teams have done this season in order to extend more pressure on the Hogs’ shooters. That could have been the coaching mistake of the game. Kingsley had perhaps his best pure post-up game of the season, and it was key in the Razorbacks’ win.
Daryl Macon, who scored 13 points, made four clutch free throws to close out the game like he has done several times this season, and Manuale Watkins scored the basket of the night late with a contested jumper that just beat the shot clock. It was not a pretty shot. It was more of a split-legged shot put than a smooth stroke, but its outcome was beautiful to Hog fans.
The outcome is that the Razorbacks are 19-7 overall and remain tied with Alabama at 8-5 for fourth place in the SEC by virtue of the Crimson Tide’s 57-54 win at Missouri.
Both are a game ahead of Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6), which occupies sixth place in the league by itself thanks to a 96-76 victory over LSU last Tuesday.
The Rebels visit Walton Arena at 5 p.m. Saturday for a critical game that the Hogs cannot take lightly if they want to gain the fourth-place bye in the SEC Tournament, held March 8-12 in Nashville.
Andy Kennedy’s Rebels have won four of their last five games. They are solid defensively and rely on three key scorers in Deandre Burnett (16.5 ppg.), Sebastian Saiz (15.2 ppg, 11.2 rpg.) and Terence Davis (14.3 ppg.).
The Hogs, which are just 3-3 in Walton Arena during SEC play as opposed to 5-2 on the road, can’t take the Rebels lightly or all gains made with the South Carolina victory will evaporate.
A loss to the Rebels would leave Arkansas tied with Ole Miss in conference play with just four games to play. A victory, however, would leave the Razorbacks two games up, and give them a head-to-head advantage for seeding the SEC Tournament if it is necessary.
Contrary to Martin’s assertion, the Razorbacks did appear to crank their level of play up a notch at South Carolina. We’ll see if the Razorbacks are truly gelling and are building momentum for the postseason, or if Hog fans are in for another dip on this roller-coaster season.