Hogs struggling to keep their head above water

Mississippi State freshman guard Malik Newman shoots over Arkansas’ Dusty Hannahs in the Bulldogs’ 78-46 win over the Razorbacks on Feb. 9 in Starkville.

Kelly Price/MSU Athletic Media Relations

The old adage of living by the jump shot and eventually dying by it caught up with the Arkansas Razorbacks in a devastating way last week.

The Hogs lost to Mississippi State and Ole Miss by an average of 30 points a game. That’s stunning, even for a Hog team that has struggled to stay around .500 all season.

During the Razorbacks’ hey days of the late 1980s through the mid ‘90s, Arkansas routed other teams back-to-back in that fashion, but I don’t recall back-to-back losses of that magnitude for an Arkansas team, particularly to middle-of-the-road squads like the Bulldogs and Rebels.

What’s happening? The simple answer is the Hogs didn’t put the ball in the hole. Arkansas shot 22 percent from the field against Mississippi State and 32 percent against Ole Miss. That type of shooting will get you beat every night out, particularly if you’ve counted on great outside shooting to just keep your head above water the entire season.

Teams have learned how to defend the Razorbacks through scouting. Both teams neutralized Dusty Hannahs, who had been scoring at a 17-point per game clip, by guarding him with long, quick forwards who not only can overplay the passing lanes to deny him the ball but also close out on his jump shot.

Hannahs had done well most of the season driving by defenders who rushed to close down his jump shot. However, by putting a taller but just as quick or quicker defender on him, Hannahs is not getting the ball as much and when he does, he’s not able to do as much with it. The more aggressive defensive attention also seems to have him off his rhythm.

The result was a 5-point effort against MSU, and a goose egg against the Rebels. Cutting off Hannahs hurt the Hogs’ offensive balance, affecting the play of the team’s other key scorers – shooter Anthlon Bell and post player Moses Kingsley.

Defensively, the Razorbacks have been challenged most of the season. The Hogs aren’t a bad defensive team, but even at their best, they’ve not been a lockdown defensive club. Like with most teams, when shots aren’t falling, the defense and hustle does begin to suffer.

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said in his first press conference of the season that this Hog team had a very slim margin of error based on their talent and numbers, and we have witnessed that all season. Anderson has managed it well, but there is no working around a shooting percentage as poor as they Razorbacks mustered last week.

Even when the Hogs have played very well — the times when they have hustled, shared the basketball and made good decisions — they struggled to win. They have blitzed a few teams this season, but most of their games have been close, win or lose.

Some have thrown that off as poor coaching or lack of player development, but it’s not that, far from it. No, it’s because of solid coaching and tremendous buy-in by the players that these shorthanded Hogs have been able to keep their heads above water this long. Anderson and his staff took a group of role players, and up until last week, kept them competitive against a sturdy schedule.

Perhaps the best attribute of this Razorback team is its resilience. Despite some heart-wrenching losses this year, the squad has always bounced back. That resilience is being challenged mightily at this juncture of the season.

Their schedule is kind enough to offer them the chance to bounce back once again this week with Auburn (9-15, 3-9 SEC) visiting Bud Walton Arena at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and Missouri (9-16, 2-10) also coming to town for a 6:30 p.m. date on Saturday.

The Hogs (12-13, 5-7) could pull a game above .500 overall and move to 7-7 in SEC play with two victories. That would fit the pattern of the season thus far, but if the Razorbacks are going to do that, they will have to shoot better than the 27 percent that they averaged on their road swing through Mississippi.

That starts with reestablishing the offense by going through Kingsley first to get better inside-out action. That will give them a shot at easier baskets which in turn might free up Hannahs and Bell for better looks.

Possibly, the Hogs might go with a bit bigger lineup to start the game, to jump start their play in the paint. I like the way Trey Thompson works on the high post with Kingsley down low. It’s a risky lineup for the Hogs because both foul too often, but it might be worth it at home to establish the inside game first.

Beyond this week, the schedule looks tough for the Razorbacks. SEC co-leader LSU (16-9, 9-3) visits Walton Arena on Feb. 23. The Tigers are the second most talented team in the league, and will be a very tough matchup for the Razorbacks even at home.

From there, the Razorbacks hit the road with trips to Tennessee (12-13, 5-7) on Feb. 27 and Alabama (15-9, 6-6) on March 2. I would call those games winnable for the Hogs, except I thought the same thing last week before the Bulldogs and Rebels ran the Razorbacks out of Mississippi. Anything can happen, but Arkansas would have to buck a season-long trend to even pick up a split in those two games.

The Razorbacks close out the regular season at home on March 5 with South Carolina (21-4, 8-4). Frank Martin’s Gamecocks aren’t as talented as Kentucky and LSU, but they are tougher and more experienced. With the game at Walton, the Razorbacks have a shot because playing at home does elevate the Hogs’ play. But, don’t expect South Carolina to be intimidated by a road game. They won’t wilt. Arkansas will have to beat them straight up.

For this team, a split of the final six games would be good, but that would leave them 8-10 in SEC play and 15-16 overall with no legitimate chance of making postseason play. It would also be Anderson’s first losing season as a head coach.

For the Hogs to have an outside chance of the making the NIT, they have go at least 4-2 down the stretch. But then again, winning out might not even do it.