End-game struggles hampering Hogs

Arkansas freshman Isaiah Joe / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks absorbed another gut punch Wednesday night as a determined Georgia Tech squad used moxie and hustle to subdue the young Hogs, 69-65, at Bud Walton Arena.

The loss dropped the Razorbacks to 7-3 on the season and left them with a two-game losing streak at Walton Arena for the first time since 2010, but more to the point, it left the Razorbacks with a 1-3 mark in meaningful games this season.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Texas State
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Dec. 28 – Austin Peay
Jan. 5 – at Texas A&M
Jan. 9 – Florida
Jan. 12 – LSU
Jan. 15 – at Tennessee
Jan. 19 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 23 – Missouri
Jan. 26 – at Texas Tech
Jan. 29 – Georgia
Feb. 2 – at LSU
Feb. 5 – Vanderbilt
Feb. 9 – at South Carolina
Feb. 12 – at Missouri
Feb. 16 – Mississippi State
Feb. 20 – at Auburn
Feb. 23 – Texas A&M
Feb. 26 – at Kentucky
March 2 – Ole Miss
March 6 – at Vanderbilt
March 9 – Alabama
March 13-17 – SEC Tournament

The Razorbacks opened the season with tough, 73-71, loss to Texas in overtime on Nov. 9, but rebounded with a solid 73-72 victory over Indiana on Nov. 18. The Hogs made their way to 6-1 record before hosting Western Kentucky on Dec. 8 when the Hilltoppers upend the Razorbacks, 78-77.

Adding Wednesday’s loss to the their docket, it’s clear Mike Anderson’s young Razorbacks aren’t quite as precocious as they seemed. In some ways, it’s too early to be thinking about the post-season implications of games played in December, but then again the games that the Hogs have lost are the types of games that make a difference on whether a squad gets in or is left out when the selection committee has to make tough choices.

With the losses to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech in full view, the Razorbacks are clearly struggling in end-game situations, which isn’t uncommon for teams that count on freshmen and sophomore guards. However, it is an area of play the Razorbacks must improve on and improve on quickly if they hope to have a good start once SEC play begins on Jan. 5.

The Razorbacks have plenty of practice time to work on their issues — even with a Christmas break — but they have only two more games to work out their kinks against a live opponent.

The first is at 1 p.m. Saturday against Texas State, and the next is at 7 p.m. Dec. 28 against Austin Peay. The SEC Network is televising Saturday’s game.

The Razorbacks’ three losses have come by a combined 7 points, which is better than being blown out of the water, but from a fan’s standpoint the outcomes might be even more frustrating because one or two better decisions by the Razorbacks in each game, and the Hogs’ record might be spotless.

Unfortunately there is not shortcut to experience and while there is talent on this Razorback squad, it’s not of the level where the Hogs can just out-talent solid teams like Georgia Tech.

Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford had the most NBA upside of any player on the court Wednesday, but the best player and leader was Yellow Jackets senior point guard Jose Alvarado, who appeared to have control of the game from the opening tip.

Alvarado scored 20 points, collected 9 rebounds, and had 2 steals, but more importantly he provided leadership for his club that the Razorbacks are simply lacking at this juncture of the season.

It’s difficult for a big man like Gafford, who is just a sophomore, to lead when he is dependent on the other players to get him the basketball.

The Razorbacks’ guards are young and uncertain in late-game situations. Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris has played well for the Razorbacks all season, but he has yet to show the confidence to control a game in the late going. Freshman guard Isaiah Joe and sophomore guard Mason Jones are scorers, but at times are a bit too quick to pull the trigger from behind the arc.

Joe’s long miss on a late-game 3-point attempt gave Alvarado and the Yellow Jackets the opportunity to go ahead by three and the ability to dictate the action for the final minute of the game.

Jones is a good shooter, but his ability to slash into the lane and attack the basket is a more beneficial skill late in the game. When you attack the basket, you force the opponent to defend and make a play and also often force the official to make call. Usually the offense or the aggressor gets that call.

Even though the Hogs aren’t a great free-throw shooting team this year, it’s better to be at the charity stripe late in the game than pumping up three-pointers.

During the course of the game, Gafford should be getting more touches. The more the offense goes through him, the better this team will be. Not only will he have the opportunity to score, but the shots for his teammates will only be of a better quality as he passes out of the paint.

The good thing is that the Hogs should only have to make minor adjustments and a few better decisions late in the game to be a much better team. The sticking point, however, is that some of those adjustments are difficult for young players to make.

When or if the Razorbacks make those adjustments will be the difference in whether this squad makes the NCAA Tournament, the NIT, or spends spring break at home.