Road split this week at Tennessee, Kentucky key for Hogs’ aspirations

Arkansas junior guard Daryl Macon drives past Florida’s Kasey Hill and Justin Leon /

The Arkansas Razorbacks played their first SEC opener at home in four years last Thursday, but the computer that spits out the league schedules did Mike Anderson and his Hogs no favors by pitting them against Florida.

Mike White’s Gators are a deep, athletic squad that shoots lights out. Historically, that’s a bad combination for Arkansas teams that play Anderson’s style of basketball. The Gators actually enjoy playing at the Hogs’ pace and do it better than the Razorbacks (11-2, 0-1 SEC), who with seven new players are still learning the finer points of Anderson’s system.

White’s Gators have been unable to play true home games with the O’Connell Center under construction throughout November and December. Florida may be the most battle-tested team in the country at this point in the season. Despite Walton Arena holding the best crowd it has seen this season, Florida wasn’t intimidated in the least by the atmosphere.

Crowds have stayed away at Walton Arena so long that they really don’t know how to support their team like in the old days when Walton Arena and before it Barnhill Arena were fearful environments for Arkansas’ opponents. Walton Arena’s just another nice gym for opponents to play in now, or so it seemed last Thursday.

So facing with what amounted to a green basketball team and a green crowd, the Gators flexed their muscles and had a fairly easy time whipping the Hogs in their own pigpen, 81-72.

The Gators are a fine basketball team. I’m guessing they are going to win most of their SEC road games this season, and perhaps be Kentucky’s only legitimate challenger for the league’s regular-season title.

The loss, though, puts the Razorbacks’ behind the eight ball early in the league schedule with the next two games on the road.

The Razorbacks play Tennessee at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., in an SEC TV-televised contest before traveling to Lexington, Ky., to face John Calipari’s Wildcats, which of course feature former Bentonville High star Malik Monk, at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in another SEC TV game.

The Razorbacks need to split this road swing if they are to stay in the league hunt in the early part of the season. In my estimation that makes Tuesday’s game against the Vols huge. It’s even bigger than Saturday’s trip to Rupp Arena because it is a winnable basketball game.

The Hogs need a win at Tennessee or they will likely return to the Ozarks with a 0-3 record after the weekend. Though it would still be early in the SEC schedule and two of the Razorbacks’ most difficult games would be behind them, Anderson does not need his squad facing the pressure of digging out of a three-loss hole.

Coach Rick Barnes’ Vols are a solid team. They’re 8-5 overall, which might not sound that great, but they are 1-0 in league play after beating Texas A&M, 73-63, last week.

Robert Hubbs III leads a balanced scoring attack with 14.8 ppg., while Grant Williams and Detrick Mostella average 10.5 and 10.2 ppg., respectively. Williams leads Tennessee in rebounding with 5.5 ppg.

The Vols hold opponents to 42.2 percent shooting, while hitting 44.6 percent of their shots. They average 13.7 turnovers a game, while forcing opponents into 16.1.

The game is going to be a dogfight for the Razorbacks, whose confidence has to be smarting after falling to Florida. The final margin was just nine points, but the Gators controlled the game from tipoff to the final buzzer. The Gators led by double-digits much of the second half.

The Hogs trailed 44-35 at halftime, and opened the second half with a 7-1 run, which cut the margin to 3 points, but the Gators pushed the lead up to as much as 16 points before settling for the final margin.

The Gator exposed the Hogs’ defensively on the half court and in transition. The Razorbacks had a difficult time stopping the ball in transition, and Florida penetrated the teeth of the Razorbacks’ switching man-to-man defense, which left kick-out passes for open three-pointers open all night.

Anderson had to be disappointed with the defensive effort, but without a game over the weekend, he and his staff should have had time to make corrections.

The Razorbacks responded well to their only other loss of the season, an 85-71 loss at Minnesota. The Hogs won their next eight games, and their play improved dramatically. While I doubt we will see an eight-game winning streak following the Florida loss, possibly the team will be more receptive to Anderson’s coaching.

Though the Hogs have 13 games under their belt, they still revert back to one-on-one offensive play too often when stressed by an opponent like many inexperienced guard-oriented teams do.

The Razorbacks do have a number of scorers with Dusty Hannahs leading the way in averaging 14.6 ppg. Daryl Macon is right behind him at 13.9 ppg. Macon scored 22 against the Gators and had a season high of 23 against Texas.

Moses Kingsley’s averaging 11.4 ppg., 8.7 rpg., and 3 blocks a game, and had his third triple double of the season against the Gators. Jaylen Barford averages 9.6 ppg., with Anton Beard scoring 9.1 ppg.

The best thing the Razorbacks do offensively is attack the basket, but sometimes individuals look too often to score off their own one-on-one ability instead of forcing a defensive breakdown with ball movement in their motion offense.

While the Razorbacks are averaging 16.2 assists per game, and shooting a decent team percentage of 46.2 percent from the field, 36.9 percent from the three-point line, and a fine 78.1 percent from the free-throw line, they don’t totally trust each other as teammates yet on the offensive end.

The Hogs are good offensively, but they can get better with a bit more patience. Their key weakness is an aggressive offensive presence in the paint. Kingsley is a solid college player, but he’s not found the desire to become an accomplished scorer in the paint.

The Razorbacks have held opponents to 40.2 percent shooting from the field and 32.9 percent shooting from the three-point line, which are solid numbers, but they suffer lapses in transition defense and too often forget to block out on the backside of three-point shots.

The Razorbacks have the material to be an even better defensive team with Kingsley guarding the rim and blue-collar forwards like Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook to help in on the boards, but stopping the ball in transition has to become an obsession to their guards to make it happen.

Defenders like Macon, Beard, Barford and Manuale Watkins have the ability to ride ball handlers into the paint to set up Kingsley for blocks if they will keep their feet moving and avoid fouling.

While the Florida game was a tough loss and a definite downer, particularly on the heels of the Razorback football team’s collapse in the Belk Bowl, this Arkansas team has the makings of a good team, a team that can make the NCAA Tournament.

However, the Razorbacks need to start gelling now on both ends of the floor. Maybe the Tennessee game is where the Hogs will take the next step in bonding as a team.