Outlook for Razorbacks looks better with every win

Arkansas junior guard Daryl Macon / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Eleven days ago, the outlook for Razorbacks basketball was bleak and uncertain. The Hogs had lost three of four games and looked particularly bad doing it.

Fans were angered, and players were frustrated, but through it all Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson remained even keeled, and 10 days later, the Razorbacks are on a three-game winning steak with their goal of making the NCAA Tournament still in reach with two weeks left in the regular season.

The streak began with a 78-70 victory over a truly bad LSU squad at Baton Rouge, but since the Hogs knocked of then 21st-ranked South Carolina, 83-76, last Wednesday at Columbia and then steamrolled a surging Ole Miss squad, 98-80, in Walton Arena last Saturday.

The Razorbacks played increasingly better in each game. The victory over South Carolina gave Arkansas a shot of confidence, but instead of their best win of the season going to their head, the Razorbacks built on that momentum.

The South Carolina game may have been the Razorbacks most-meaningful effort of the season, but the Hogs played even better against the Rebels.

For the first time in a long time, the Razorbacks did not fall behind by double digits. Their offensive execution was more fluid because of better movement and more efficient passing. The Razorbacks passed to set their teammates up not just to get rid of the ball when their attempt to drive or get a shot off failed.

The improved execution was evident to the naked eye, and it showed up in the stat sheet with 20 assists. Most importantly it showed up on the scoreboard with an 18-point victory over the Rebels who had played much better in recent weeks.

The key stat in any basketball game is a team’s shooting percentages. The Hogs performed well in all three categories, shooting 47 percent from the field, 41.4 percent from the three-point line, and 88.9 percent from the free-throw line.

Executing the offense, sharing the ball, moving without the ball, setting good picks, making sharp cuts, and understanding the angles of the game all greatly affect a team’s shooting percentage. They combine to provide open looks, easier shots and trips to the free-throw line by forcing opponents to foul.

While Daryl Macon deserved the headlines he garnered by scoring a career-high 30 points off the bench, a close second to me was junior forward Trey Thompson. Saturday was his best game in a Razorback uniform. We’ve seen glimpses of his talent before as Moses Kingsley’s backup, but foul trouble and turnovers often sent him to the bench.

However, the 6-9 Thompson shined Saturday playing alongside Kingsley. Thompson is one of the better passers on the team, and unlike some Razorbacks, his decision to pass isn’t his last option. His passing helped keep the Hogs’ offense from going stagnant, and his three assists were key.

Thompson also scored 8 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, blocked 3 shots and made 3 steals in 23 minutes. His play didn’t detract from Kingsley game, but actually helped him.

Thompson averages 12.6 minutes a game for the season, but if he can continue to play like he did on Saturday, his minutes should go up. With no other big men, Anderson probably can’t afford to start Thompson along with Kingsley, but the more the two can play together the better the Razorbacks will be.

Senior Manny Watkins also provided some glue for the Hogs with five assists, 4 rebounds and 6 points. Behind Macon’s 30, five Hogs scored between 8 and 15 points. Barford contributed 15, Kingsley had 14, Anton Beard 11, Dusty Hannahs 9 and Thompson 8.

Defensively, the Razorbacks stumped LSU and South Carolina with their 2-3 match-up zone, but topped the Rebels primarily with their man-to-man with a little zone thrown in here and there. The key, though, is both defenses were effective and Arkansas rebounded well out of both. While the margins were only a couple of boards, Arkansas outrebounded South Carolina and Ole Miss.

It may be too soon to say the Razorbacks are finally gelling as a team. There have just been too many ups and downs this season to make that firm of a conclusion. However, the Razorbacks have improved their play in each of the last three games, and with a 20-7 record overall and a 9-5 league mark, they look more and more like an NCAA Tournament team with each victory.

If the Razorbacks can keep winning, they will crack into a tie for third place in the SEC going into Saturday’s games.

If Arkansas beats Texas A&M (14-12, 6-8) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena, and South Carolina (20-7, 10-4) loses at Florida (22-5, 12-2) on Tuesday, the Razorbacks and Gamecocks would be tied for third with 10-5 records.

If Alabama (16-10, 9-5) beats Georgia (15-12, 6-8) at Tuscaloosa on Thursday, there would be a three-way knot for third going into Saturday’s games. If that tie remained through the end of the season, Arkansas would own the head-to-head tiebreaker over South Carolina and Alabama for SEC Tournament seeding.

There’s a lot of ball left to be played before the SEC Tournament, held March 8-12 in Nashville, but the outlook for the Razorbacks is a lot better than it was 11 days ago.