What a difference a week can make. A week ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks were one of the hottest teams in the nation with a six-game winning streak, a high RPI, and a national ranking in the polls.
Today, Mike Anderson’s Hogs are nursing a two-game losing streak and are out of the polls. The Razorbacks’ RPI is no longer top 10, but it’s hanging in there in the top 14, all due to its pre-conference success.
Arkansas vs Missouri
Date: Saturday, Jan. 13
Time: 5 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network
The Razorbacks’ two SEC road losses last week were disheartening, frustrating, and in some instances infuriating. Mississippi State nipped the Hogs, 78-75, last Tuesday at Starkville, Miss. and Auburn torched the Razorbacks, 88-77, on the plains last Saturday.
At 1-2 in SEC play and 11-4 overall, Anderson said that his Razorbacks need a sense of urgency when they take the floor at 8 p.m. Wednesday against a better-than-expected LSU squad. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.
The Tigers (10-4, 1-1 SEC) suffered a 74-71 heartbreaker at home to Kentucky in their SEC opener but upended Texas A&M, 69-68, at College Station last Saturday.
If the Razorbacks want to stay in the thick the SEC race early, the Hogs need to bounce back big time his week in the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena, first against LSU on Wednesday and then against Missouri at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Playing at home makes everything easier. Oddsmakers usually credit the home team with a three-point advantage when setting a betting line, but at Walton Arena, the advantage seems to be more like 10.
However, the Razorbacks can take nothing for granted this season. According to the experts, the SEC is stronger than it has been in recent memory. Right now, bracketology experts like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi are forecasting as many as eight SEC teams having the resume to make the NCAA Tournament. TV analysts employed by the league have said as many as nine.
If that’s the case, a team with a .500 or worse league record could squeak into the NCAA Tournament. That’s hard for me to believe.
It stands to reason that number will retract by the time Selection Sunday rolls around in March. I’d guess more like 6 SEC teams having a legitimate chance of making the Big Dance.
With as much parity as there seems to be in the SEC during the early going, the Razorbacks need to halt their losing streak immediately. Anderson said Monday the key to turning the Razorbacks’ fortunes back around is to take a back-to-basics approach.
Basics for Anderson means playing better, more assertive defense, and getting a greater contribution from his bench, whose play has grown stagnant since the team returned from Christmas break.
While the Razorbacks remain one of the highest scoring teams in the SEC averaging 88.5 points per game on the season and 82.3 in SEC play, the Hogs have given up an average of 86.3 points per game in SEC play. The Hogs have to get that number down, way down iff they want to reach any of their postseason goals for the season.
Anderson said that while it is still early, it’s time to recalibrate his team, and switch their focus from the offensive end of the floor to defense.
“We got to get defensive minded,” Anderson said. “We need to create havoc, get more deflections and turnovers, and get more stops.”
Anderson’s system works best when its defense feeds its offense with easy baskets. Mississippi State and Auburn basically turned the Razorbacks into a half-court team by shredding the Hogs’ defense.
Opponents have averaged 39.4 percent shooting from three-point range against the Razorbacks in three conference games.
Anderson said the Hogs have to play tighter defense to chase opponents off the three-point line.
Anderson wants his defender on shooters more quickly and guarding them tighter.
“We have to turn their shooters into to drivers,” Anderson said.
Anderson thought the Razorbacks played better in the second half against Auburn, but that the Hogs had dug too deep of a hole in the first half.
Anderson said the Hogs’ bench will be key in turning around the Hogs’ play.
“We’re not just a a one-two punch,” Anderson said referring to senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.
The senior duo have been key scorers for the Razorbacks all season, but in SEC games, their scoring is up with Macon is averaging 22.3 ppt. and Barford 20.0 ppt., while many of their teammates’ scoring averages are down.
Anderson wants a greater contribution from his bench across the board.
“Our bench is going to be the difference in how good this team can be,” Anderson said.
That comment is a double-edged sword. It’s an acknowledgement that the Razorbacks have the makings of a solid bench, but it’s also an alert that his backups and role players need to assert themselves, and quickly.
Anderson acknowledged that Arkansas’ offense has become stagnant at times, with less off-the-ball movement and too much dribbling and one-on-one play by Macon, Barford, and Anton Beard.
Anderson believes the worst of that type of play has come when his guards feel fatigued from playing too many minutes.
Macon (38.7), Barford (35.3), and Beard (32.3) are averaging way too many minutes to attempt to play at the pace the Razorbacks would like to play.
Anderson does control the player’s minutes, but how well the bench plays with the minutes that are given also dictates how much they can be trusted to be called upon by Anderson.
Anderson wants his bench to respond when called upon, but leaders like Macon and Barford have to trust their teammates as well.
Around the three minute mark Saturday at Auburn, the Hogs had cut the Tigers’ double-digit lead down to seven and had the ball with the opportunity to draw even closer.
On the half-court, Barford ignored an open Darius Hall on the wing and continued to dribble until finally giving the ball up to Macon.
Macon had a drive cut off but missed Hall, who was open on cut, before passing the ball back to Barford. Barford then fired up a deep, closely guarded three-pointer from the corner that clanked hard off the rim.
Barford’s miss ended up becoming a long rebound that ignited a transition three-pointer for the Tigers that all but sealed the game.
Anderson attributed such poor decision making to fatigue and desperation. No doubt, he’s right.
Arkansas’ bench does need to step up, but Macon, Barford, and Beard also need to trust their teammates enough to let them help.