Struggling Hogs face tough road test against Aggies

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

What some Hog fans feared in mid December has become a reality in early January.

The Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team have yet to gel as a team, and the Hogs are at the bottom of the barrel of the SEC, which probably is the best league in college basketball this season.

The Razorbacks fell to 0-2 Tuesday in SEC play when a 3-point shot by J.D. Notae that could have been the game-winner rimmed out as the buzzer sounded, giving the Vanderbilt Commodores a 75-74 victory at Walton Arena.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8
Where: College Station, TX
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 12 – Missouri. 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 15 – at LSU. 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 18 – South Carolina. 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 22 – Texas A&M. 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 22 – at Ole Miss. 6 p.m. (SEC Network)

That loss coupled with Arkansas’ 81-68 thumping from Mississippi State at Starkville on Dec. 29 leaves the Hogs as the SEC’s cellar dweller going into this Saturday’s noon game at Texas A&M.

The Aggies are 12-2 on the season and are 1-0 in SEC play after nipping Georgia 81-79 at Athens on Tuesday.

The Hogs aren’t just 0-2 in SEC play but also 1-4 in their last five games.

It’s still very early in the conference season. Hog fans shouldn’t push the panic button yet.

If you remember it wasn’t until the Razorbacks absorbed back-to-back blow-out road losses to LSU and Alabama last year before coach Eric Muscleman and the squad rounded the Razorbacks into their best finish in a quarter century.

There is still some hope for this Razorback basketball squad. There is.

However, things do need to turn around drastically for a squad that has some talented offensive pieces, but one that has struggled to function well defensively as a unit for extended periods on the hardwood.

Can Musselman, his staff, and the Hogs right the ship in time for Arkansas to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament?

That is the hope, but that ship needs to start turning very quickly. Saturday at College Station would be none too soon.

Historically, some of the best Razorback basketball teams have experienced some difficult times at College Station dating back to the two program’s days as members of the Southwest Conference.

Musselman needs an all-out effort from his Razorbacks Saturday to keep the squad from dipping to 0-3 in SEC play.

The new buzz word for defense in college-basketball parlance is “being connected.” It’s just another way of saying every player is performing his role on defense.

SEC Standings

  Record SEC
Auburn 13-1 2-0
Alabama 11-3 2-0
Texas A&M 12-2 1-0
Mississippi St. 10-3 1-0
Vanderbilt 9-4 1-0
LSU 13-1 1-1
Kentucky 11-3 1-1
Tennessee 10-3 1-1
Florida 9-4 0-1
South Carolina 9-4 0-1
Ole Miss 8-5 0-1
Missouri 6-7 0-1
Georgia 5-9 0-1
Arkansas 10-4 0-2

Such connectivity is key for the Hogs at the moment, particularly for the Hogs guards.

Devo Davis and J.D. Notae are pesky and active back-court defenders, but they often freelance too much in an effort to make steals. The end result, particularly for Davis, is often cheap and quick fouls that ultimately leave him watching from the bench like last Tuesday against Vanderbilt.

When the Hogs go for steals that they fail to make it usually results in an open shot for the opposition particularly when the Hogs’ rotation breaks down or fellow guard Chris Lykes is cheating off his man too much. A 5-7 player like Lykes has a difficult time closing out on shooters are several inches taller than him. The best thing he could do is deny them from getting the ball in the first place.

The Hogs must find a happy and effective medium with their cheating for steals on defense. At the moment, it might mean not cheating at all?

The Razorbacks are also having difficulty stopping penetration in general. Musselman had the Hogs played more zone against Vandy than what he has traditionally liked to do, but it might be necessary to continue to do so as the Hogs move forward.

Now, it’s a lot easier to notice issues with a team that’s struggling than it is to fix them. It’s going to be interesting to see what defensive adjustments Musselman does make with the Razorbacks against the the Aggies on Saturday.

Offensively, the Razorbacks’ biggest issue seems to go back to point guard play.

Though the Hogs do have talent at the guard spot, the Razorbacks don’t have a traditional point guard. Notae and Lykes are both wired to score. It’s their instinct and what they like to do. Davis is more of a two guard or wing player than a natural facilitator for other players.

The player who sees the floor and the game best for the Hogs is 6-10 forward Jaylin Williams. The Razorback do run a lot of offense through him on the high post, but with a relatively small team, the Hogs also need him down low to rebound and bang inside.

Other than the Hogs’ haphazard dedication to playing solid defense, point guard play appears to be their biggest challenge.

Playing defense is all about desire, dedication and want to. That can be fixed more quickly than changing a player’s mindset on how he sees and naturally plays the game from an offensive standpoint.

That said it seems incumbent upon either Notae, Lykes, or Davis to step up and play more of a facilitator role within the offense than is natural for them to do if the Hogs’ fortunes are to turn around.

The Razorbacks are averaging 12.3 turnovers a game on the season, which I believe Musselman would say is too high even at the pace the Hogs like to play. He’d probably like to see that number no higher than 10.

In their two SEC games, the Razorbacks’ turnover average rate has ballooned up to 15.5 per game. That’s just not a winning number. The Razorbacks have to value the ball more.

Musselman’s extends a great deal of freedom to his players on the offense, particularly to those who have proven they can shoot the ball well. However with freedom comes responsibility.

Often the Razorbacks settled for tough 3-pointers or 3-pointers they can get at any time without ever probing their opponents’ defense or making them work.

It’s great when those treys go down, but when they don’t, it often leads to an easy bucket or a Razorback foul on the other end.

Again, it’s easier to see these issues than it is to correct them, but if the Razorbacks are going to fight their way back to respectability this season, corrections in these areas and others must happen.

I’m interested to see how the Hogs compete and play against the Aggies on Saturday, and I’m hoping it will be the start of a turnaround for this team that has been struggling in their last five games.