Razorbacks win but keep fans frustrated on the edge of their seats

Photo: Joe Howell / VUCommodores.com

There are a lot of things Hogs fans can complain about, and no doubt they will, but one thing Arkansas fans can’t gripe about is their team being boring.

For the third time in a row Tuesday, the Razorbacks staged a staggering comeback to win on the road. This time the victim was Vanderbilt as the Razorbacks erased a 15-point deficit in the final six minutes of the game to lift the Hogs’ record to 16-4 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.

Earlier in the season the Razorbacks overcame double-digit leads to topple Tennessee at Knoxville, Tenn., and Texas A&M at College Station.

The victory boosted the Razorbacks’ RPI rating up to No. 28, which is a significant move at this juncture of the season, and it inched coach Mike Anderson’s squad ever closer to securing a NCAA Tournament bid.

Arkansas junior guard Dusty Hannahs put on a clinic in taking what the defense gives in the final stage of the game. The SEC office should name him player of the week for what he accomplished in the closing minutes of the game.

Hannahs scored 14 of his 17 points in the comeback by driving to the basket for field goals and to earn trips to the free-throw line. He made the Vanderbilt defense look flat-footed. It was a dazzling scoring display by the senior from Little Rock, who has grown from being tagged as just a shooter when he transferred from Texas Tech to a well-rounded scorer in Anderson’s program.

Now certainly that’s a testament to Hannahs’ work effort, but Anderson and his staff have no doubt helped Hannahs develop. Those critics of the Arkansas building a state-of-the art practice facility might take note, too. Hannahs is a gym rat and has taken advantage of the opportunity to hone his scoring skills in the facility that’s open 24 hours a day so the players can work on their game.

I’m sure Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew is still scratching his head about how his defense gave up so much in so little time.

The Commodores had held the Hogs scoreless for the better part of eight minutes in the second half, outscoring the Razorbacks’ 15-0 to take a seemingly insurmountable lead with 6:02 left in the game.

Credit must go to Anderson here, too. Anderson understands that what his best players do best is drive to the basket. By clearing out the middle of the floor, Hannahs and Daryl “Ice Water” Macon, in particular, and the Hogs in general made the most of driving lanes to the basket to get quick, easy buckets as Vanderbilt’s defense struggled to adjust. It’s a bit unconventional, but it’s a coach using what his team does best to press an advantage.

Macon, another Little Rock product, drew fouls and made seven free throws in the Hogs’ comeback. His final three with just 1.8 seconds on the clock were like icicle daggers in Vandy’s heart.

If you remember, Macon also delivered at the free-throw line in the Hogs’ comeback victory over Tennessee, and has arguably been the Hogs’ best player this season.

Macon and Hannahs are the obvious heroes, but every Razorback on the floor played their role.

Senior Manuale Watkins, a Fayetteville High School grad, made a key steal that set up a three-point play by Moses Kingsley. He scored a bucket in the comeback run, deflected a pass that resulted in a steal by Jaylen Barford that set up Arkansas’ final offensive possession, and he ran down Barford’s tipped rebound to set up the three-point shot that Macon was fouled on. Kingsley’s defense at midcourt was key in allowing Watkins to deflect the pass that Barford stole.

So while Hannahs and Macon deserve the kudos for their offense, the defense and rebounding of Barford, Kingsley and Watkins can’t be denied. Also, Barford’s first-half, three-point shooting (3 of 4) kept the Hogs in the game early.

Some have already written off the game as luck, saying Vanderbilt lost more than the Hogs won it. There may be some truth in that, but isn’t that the way it is most games?

Why is it when Kansas or Villanova or Florida or North Carolina forces an opponent into mental mistakes, it’s great coaching, but when Arkansas does the same, it’s dumb luck?

Perception, that’s all.

The analysts on the SEC network and commentators and fans were so quick to jump down Anderson’s throat for calling a timeout to set his defense.

Yes, the timeout did give Vandy more time to plan for a final shot, but it also gave Anderson time to sub in the players he wanted and reiterate his defensive plan of forcing a shot around half court.

Also, had Anderson not taken a timeout, and the Hogs lost, critics would have been all over him about not calling the timeout when he could have. We are so fickle and want to gripe no matter the outcome.

Sometimes we forget that chaos and wearing opponents down physically and mentally is built into to Arkansas’ style of play and game plan. The Razorbacks’ style of play is meant to create a breaking point in the game, which the Hogs can scramble and take advantage of.

The cumulative effect of Anderson’s style is like a crack in a windshield. A first it’s a peck in the glass. Then it cracks. Sometimes when the crack begins to run, it shatters.

While the Razorbacks didn’t lock the game down until the final second, Vandy did shatter among the chaos.

It’s true that some teams don’t shatter or even crack. Experienced and more talented teams can take advantage of Arkansas’ style. For the longest, it looked like Vanderbilt would, just as Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Minnesota had done in the Hogs’ four losses.

No style of play is perfect, and no system trumps a more talented team that’s disciplined and well coached.

And that’s where the frustration stems from many Hog fans, including me. The Razorbacks are a talented team, but they aren’t overwhelmingly talented and while deep they also lack some pieces.

The Razorbacks’ don’t have a natural point guard. They are making do with combo guards sharing the role. A testament to that fact is the Hogs had only six assists in the game.

The Razorbacks don’t have a consistent inside game because they lack a back-to-the-basket post player to run their offense through. Kingsley, who still does a ton for the team defensively and on the boards, is simply not comfortable in that role, and that’s not going to change.

Those two issues are why the Hogs have scoring draughts like Tuesday’s seven-minute slump that got them into the 15-point hole at Vandy.

Defensively, Arkansas’ most talented guards aren’t lock-down defenders. The Razorbacks lose focus on defense in transition and on the half court.

In the Hogs’ scrambling man-to-man and trapping zone defenses, a loss of attention leaves opponents with easy shots. Arkansas’ defense is predicated on playing hard and smart as well as playing intuitively. We saw that kind of play in the final six minutes Tuesday, but that type of defensive effort only comes in spurts with this squad.

The Razorbacks are improving in all those areas, but those weaknesses will trip them up at times this season, and whether it’s in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT, it will likely be their final undoing.

That said, the Razorbacks are 16-4 on the season, and they actually reached that win total a few days earlier than Anderson’s 2014-15 squad that featured Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls.

I don’t think this team is as good as that 2014-15 team, but they’re on a four-game winning streak, and it is still improving.

I would also argue that this team hasn’t played well for a complete game all season. If they can inch closer to that goal on a consistent basis, the Razorbacks might be a part of March Madness instead of just making their fans mad.

The Razorbacks step out of SEC play on Saturday to participate in the Big 12-SEC basketball challenge. They face Oklahoma State (12-8, 2-6 Big 12) at 3 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.