Here we are on Selection Sunday with no home team to root for. Today is a great and awful day for a lot of teams. An entire season hangs in the balance as a committee decides if your team’s resume of play is good enough to make you one of the 65 that will have the chance to become men’s college basketball’s champion. Those that didn’t have enough wins, or play enough tough teams, might end up being invited to the NIT — which is the stomping ground of up-and-comers and used-to-bes.
But, like I mentioned, our team, the Arkansas Razorbacks, are already home. They’ve been there since Friday after their first round lost to Florida in the SEC Tournament. They’re not going to the big dance. They’re not going to the NIT. They’re not going anywhere except maybe to the couch so they can sit and watch over 80 teams compete in post-season play. And hopefully, while they sit, some things will get figured out so that maybe next season, we’ll all be huddled around a TV on Selection Sunday, hoping to hear the Razorbacks get called out to dance.
The Tale of Two Seasons
This year was a very tough year to endure, for coaches, players and fans alike. Going into the season we all knew that it was shaping up to be a rebuilding year — seeing as we lost six seniors and our top-player from the year before. In numbers, we lost over 80% of our scoring and close to 80% of our rebounding. Not many teams will overcome that in one season. Almost all of the professional pundits said that Arkansas would finish last in the SEC — so, a rebuilding year it was and none of us should have expected a miracle.
Someone obviously didn’t tell that to our young group of kids (which included five freshmen, two red-shirt freshmen, one sophomore, and five juniors — two of which are former walk-ons). After playing a relatively easy non-conference schedule, and welcoming back senior Marcus Monk (who had some eligibility left), the Hogs surprised two Big 12 heavyweights (Texas and Oklahoma) and finished the non-conference at 12-1.
The Razorbacks faithful, and the bandwagoneers, were in Hog Heaven. Our young team that was supposed to finish in the dweller was 12-1 and had come close to cracking the Top 25. All of a sudden, our team was now supposed to compete for the SEC West title and was poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Four days after the Texas win, the wheels fell off of the wagon. Arkansas opened SEC play at home with a loss to Mississippi State. But fans weren’t fazed, this was just a bounce-back loss after playing such an emotional game versus Texas, right? Maybe not, because then the losses began to pile up: Ole Miss, Florida and Auburn. Standing at 12-5, Arkansas played Alabama on ESPN and won, reviving fans’ hopes that the ship had been righted.
Unfortunately, more losses started to mount up: LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Alabama, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. If not for a tinsy blip, a win over Georgia, Arkansas would have finished at 1-15 in the SEC. Instead, after going 12-1 in non-conference play, they finished 2-14 in the SEC. That’s a 14-15 record overall. Oh, and if you add in the SEC Tournament loss to Florida, it’s 14-16.
I would venture to say that in most Hogs fans’ opinions, this season was pathetic. After starting off so well, how on earth could we finish so poorly? But I implore all fans to not see the season as pathetic, but, instead, be empathetic towards the Hogs. Let’s take a look at what happened and maybe we can understand how the Razorbacks fell.
I don’t think we can look to one thing, one instance or one single moment and find how our season fell apart. The bad news, there’s more than one. The good news, most of this is fixable. Here’s what happened to change our season from good to bad, in no particular order:
- Lack of Experience
It’s been said before (in countless columns, articles, etc.) that we lost 80% of our scoring and rebounding. Eighty percent. Coming into the season, this team had an identity problem. Every single kid that started a game hadn’t ever started one at Arkansas before. The two juniors, Michael Washington and Stefan Welsh, averaged 13.4 minutes and 19.3 minutes respectively last year. Add onto that we started three freshman (Courtney Fortson, Rotnei Clarke and Michael Sanchez) almost every game. That, right there, is a serious lack of college basketball experience and very difficult to overcome.
Is it fixable? Of course it is. Returning all of our players next year is huge. With a full NCAA season under our freshmens’ belts, next year will only be easier for them.
- Lack of Depth
Gone are the days of Nolan Richardson and his carousel of players to insert and press the hell out of teams. Well, gone for now. Before, and after, Monk came back to the team, the Razorbacks were consistently giving only seven players effective play time. The other players were either too inconsistent or inexperienced, or both. It’s a catch-22, though. The more play time these reserves get, the more experience they get. But in the short term, you’re not giving your team the best shot to win.
Is it fixable? Yes. All it will take is adding players who can step in and play, and, of course, experience for everyone on the team.
- Lack of Height
When watching the Hogs play against other teams, did you ever find yourself saying, “how come that team is so tall?” If you said that, how many times total did you ask that over the season? My guess, about 25 out of 30 games. It’s true, not only is Arkansas an extremely young team, they’re also a relatively small team, too. We have three players listed at 6-9. The rest are shorter. Our four main guards (Fortson, Clarke, Welsh and Marcus Britt) are listed at 5-11, 6-0, 6-3 and 6-2 respectively. When three of those guards are on the floor and the other two are, at best, 6-9, that’s a pretty small team.
Is it fixable? To some degree. We’re not going to take Fortson and Clarke out of the game any time soon because they give us the best chance to win. But I highly doubt that Pelphrey will recruit players under 6-3 any more. Our current commit list for this fall has four kids, all over 6-4. But our lack of height can’t be an excuse, either. You come to play with who you got.
- Players out of Position
One of the things that stood out to me this year is that we have a few players playing out of position. The two Michaels (Washington and Sanchez) come to mind. I don’t know how many times I watched Washington look lost when he posted up down low. Sure Washington has the build for physical play, but his style is more like Kevin Durant or Amare Stoudemire — a taller, leaner, athletic shooter, not a banger down in the lane. This is evidenced by Washington’s one three-point attempt per game and how good he is at setting a high pick and busting down the lane for a layup or slam. He’s not a traditional post player. And Sanchez, for as much of a hustler as he is, he’s not quite ready to play down low in the SEC. Sure, he’s 6-8 with a wide body, but he’s no Corliss Williamson. One could also make the case for Clarke playing out of position, too. In high school he was a point guard that created shots for himself and controlled the flow of the game. Now he’s the shooter that has to create opportunities for himself WITHOUT the ball in his hands. That’s a difficult transition.
Is it fixable? Yes. Clarke as tremendous basketball IQ and will learn how to play without the ball as he continues to play. MikeWash will continue to improve down low, and he’ll need to if he wants to succeed in the NBA. More big bodies in the paint will help him keep things spread out, too. Sanchez will gain muscle and strength as well as experience.
This Razorbacks squad had it’s fair share of liabilities. The first was perimeter defense (stemmed from lack of height). The second, free-throw shooting (team average was 65%). The third was players playing out of position. The fourth, and very important, was offensive options. In our offense, our first option was MikeWash, second was either Fortson or Clarke, third and fourth were Welsh and Sanchez. The problem is that Welsh and Sanchez aren’t great shooters (Sanchez shot 44% from the floor, Welsh, a pitiful 36%). In fact, I think that both Sanchez and Welsh are liabilities in this respect. Sanchez lacked the experience and size to be effective most of the time (as evidenced by his constant foul trouble) and Welsh was a loose cannon. Sure Stefan averaged 11.5 points a game, but he also averaged almost 11 shot attempts per game. He had a few break-out games, but he’s not our primary scorer, nor will he ever be. And if he attempts another 14 thee-pointers in a game again, I’ll strangle him myself. He’s, at best, the fourth option on the team — and he needs to get better at shooting. Anoter liability, Fortson’s 1.3/1 assist to turnover ratio. This HAS to be better than that. As the point guard on the team, he must do a better job of distributing the ball and not turning it over.
Is it fixable? Yes. All are fixable with practice and experience.
- SEC Teams Studied Tapes
When Arkansas pulled off those two HUGE upsets of Oklahoma and Texas, it stunned almost everybody. Sure the games were at home, but they were big wins for our team. And they were tough wins as neither team handed the game to us. We earned them. But looking back on those games, how were we so successful? MikeWash had big games, sure. But, my guess as to why they were big games is that Texas and OU didn’t know how to play against him. At that point in the season, MikeWash wasn’t trying to post up for over half the game. He was picking high and running the lane. It was after those two games that we started the SEC season and our wins diminished. I’d say that those high profile games were picked apart by SEC coaches, because soon after, MikeWash was double-teamed quite often and our team didn’t respond.
Is it fixable? Well, teams aren’t going to stop watching tape of teams they’re going up against. But, we’re not going to play the exact same way next year. The improvement will come in how we adjust our play to the way teams are matching up against us.
- Monk Ineligible
When Marcus Monk came to the team, it was a double-edged sword. Not only was he an experienced senior and a remarkable athlete, he gave us a viable sixth man and helped give Washington some breathing room on the bench. At the same time, it took away valuable experience-gaining minutes from our young players. When Monk left the team due to eligibility concerns, the wheels were already falling off. If Monk had stayed, would we have won more games? Probably. But, this team’s problems weren’t all hinged on Monk’s presence.
Is it fixable? Nope. Monk is gone. Or yes. Monk is gone.
- Player Attitudes
Of the many things I like about Pelphrey, his quickness to impose his will over the players is one of my favorites. As a player, you’ve come to the school to learn in class and play basketball in Pelphrey’s system. You do either of those things incorrectly, and you’re going to be suspended. This is not going to be a system where kids come in and run the show. Pelphrey is the boss and what he says, goes. Even when it doesn’t put our team in the best position to win (like when Fortson didn’t play against Kentucky), Pelphrey has to show the kids that he’s serious. So Fortson was suspended twice, Jason Henry three times and Montrel McDonald decided that he was better than that, so he left the team.
Is it fixable? I’d say it’s a work in progress. Kids watching our program closely should take note that Pel doesn’t put up with this kind of crap. The good thing is that Pel is going to recruit kids that buy into his system. Until we can go a full season without major incidents, I’d say this isn’t “fixed.”
- Coaching Staff
There were a few times this year where I questioned some of the coaching decisions. When Welsh attempts 14 three-pointers, why wasn’t he yanked? Better yet, why wasn’t he told to stop after he attempted eight? For most of the season, our offensive strategy was fairly obvious — go to MikeWash and if that doesn’t work, go to Fortson or Clarke. When teams started to double-down on MikeWash, our offense went to crap. Was it time to install a new offense? No, probably not. Ultimately, the kids decide how games will end up and when our team isn’t shooting well, defending well, or getting rebounds, that’s an issue.
Is it fixable? I’m expecting the staff to be shaken up a little. Will that fix things, though? We’ll have to wait until next year to see how we make adjustments week-to-week and in-game.
- The SEC Grind
Nothing in high school could have prepared these guys for the toughness of conference play. A lot of times you hear that college kids have a hard time adjusting to the full schedule in the NBA. I think our freshmen hit the wall hard after our non-conference games. Clarke went from averaging 40+ points his senior year of high school to just 12+ this season. In fact, there were a few games (three) where he didn’t score a single point. The team experienced a bit of the grind, as well. There were too many games, out of the last 16, where the Hogs could only put together one good half. In order to win in the SEC, even in a down year, the team has to be more consistent with their game play. If the shots aren’t falling, the defense has to tighten up.
Is it fixable? There’s no quick fix for this. The SEC was tough on us this year and it’s only going to get tougher as the league grows and matures. Experience is key here. The more we play, the better we’ll get.
So the year started off with a bang and went out with a whimper. But as most of the critics expected, the Hogs finished in the cellar of the SEC en route to their worst season since 2004 and worst conference season ever since joining the SEC.
But it wasn’t a pathetic year. Maybe it was at times, but this was really Pelphrey’s first year considering the amount of seniors we had last year. Stan Heath left the cupboard bare, and Pel is trying to fill it back up. The problem is it takes time. Pel is a good coach and while you may disagree with some of the decisions he made this year, he was doing the best he could with what he had. If, in two years, we haven’t improved dramatically from where we are now, it’ll probably be time for a coaching change.
In the meantime, be excited that not only are all starters returning next year, but also that we have some blossoming freshmen (Jason Henry, Brandon Moore, etc.) an exciting and capable young coach, good recruits and a fan base that wants nothing less than a winning team.
Yes, it was a tough year to watch. But I promise you, when these Hogs start winning again, you’ll be able to appreciate where they started and how they got there.