To say that Razorback basketball fans were disappointed in the four-game stretch of prior to the team’s Christmas break is an understatement. Arkansas went 2-2 in that period and could have easily lost all four games against Western Kentucky, Texas-San Antonio, Georgia Tech and Texas State.
The Hogs first game back from their three days off didn’t exactly inspire confidence that anything had changed for many of those fans. But, in fact, there were a number of differences between Arkansas’ 76-65 win over Austin Peay and what I saw in the previous four games. Mike Anderson’s players ran the offense much better, they played defense and rebounded at an improved level and the bench was much more impressive.
You would not know these things from reading comments on social media following Friday night’s game in Bud Walton Arena. To many it was just another game where the Razorbacks struggled against a no name opponent, an opponent that could not in any way, in their minds, compare to the SEC teams Arkansas is about to face. Part of the reason for that reaction is that the game was not on regular television and was not seen by a lot of those who were complaining. I also doubt that most knew anything about Austin Peay other than the name of the school which was enough to convince them that if the Hogs were really a good basketball team they would have blown the doors off of their Ohio Valley conference opponent.
The Governors arrived for the game on the crest of a six-game winning streak. It was pointed out in a pre-game press conference that Austin Peay had beaten Troy at Troy, a team that had won at Western Kentucky which had beaten Arkansas in Bud Walton. But Razorback head coach Mike Anderson was mainly concerned that the Governors were veteran team that played a tight zone defense while averaging 85 points per game. They were also coached by a man that Anderson knew well.
Matt Figger had been an assistant coach under Frank Martin at both Kansas State and South Carolina whose teams had gone up against Anderson at both Missouri and Arkansas. Both coaches knew what to expect in this game.
Arkansas opened the game on a 7-2 run in stark contrast to the 19-9 hole this team found itself in during the opening minutes of its pre Christmas clash with Texas State. Throughout the game the Hogs rarely trailed by more than a few points and held the lead for 18:33 to just 13:47 for the visitors. But the real difference was immediately obvious. After four straight games of struggling to run its offense Arkansas was sharing the basketball, looking inside for points and piling up assists while shooting 43% from the floor and 41% from three point range.
Figger’s comments after the game were not something that would have even come up in the previous four post game pressers. He said of Arkansas’ offensive performance, “They’re so good at moving the ball. Twenty-one assists. They’re so unselfish and anytime you get a team that passes and cuts like they do, they move at a speed and a pace and they share the ball.”
The contrast on the defensive end was equally obvious. After a frustrating string of games where the Hogs allowed wide open three’s and uncontested layups they took 20 points off their opponent’s scoring average. Austin Peay, a good three point shooting team, managed to go just 4 for 25 from behind the arc.
“Defense was definitely what got us over the hump,” freshman forward Reggie Chaney said after the game. “Our mindset was just, offense is gonna come. We just have to stay in tune and all be on the same page defensively. We got in our matchup and we just matched up with everybody and pressured the ball.”
That defense included 14 steals and 21 points off of turnovers prompting Anderson to observe, “Our pressure defense was the difference in the game. I thought it wore ’em down. They only shot 35 percent in the second half and they’re a much better three point shooting team than that.” (16%)
A big part of Austin Peay’s defensive philosophy is to force turnovers and while it got Arkansas to commit 11 of them that wasn’t nearly enough according to Figgers who said, “Eleven turnovers for you guys may be a high number but we’re one of the nation’s leaders in forcing turnovers and they took care of the ball.”
Anderson had admitted before the game that part of the issue with his team’s four-game slump was the way he was tinkering with his bench and giving his non starters more playing time, something he defended as necessary prior to the upcoming SEC race. In this game it paid off.
Figger used his bench more than has been typical of the Hogs’ opponents this season. The four players that came off the bench for Austin Peay logged 64 minutes of playing time and scored 29 points. Anderson countered with 80 minutes from his bench and 31 points. That bench consisted of one sophomore and four freshmen. Anderson was complimentary of the way they handled themselves against Austin Peay’s senior-heavy lineup, especially near the end of the first half when Jordan Phillips came in and provided a spark that allowed Arkansas to take a 34-33 lead into the dressing room.
“That was a young group out there at that point in time,” Anderson emphasized. “We were were down and they made a run to get us back in it. When I looked out there I saw a different energy level with that bunch. That’s the growth of this team. Those guys are getting valuable minutes when the game matters. That’s going to come back and pay big dividends.”
Freshman guard Desi Sills didn’t score but had five important assists in 24 minutes of playing time. Chaney had another big night off the bench scoring 12 points with a block and four rebounds in 25 minutes on the floor. But it was newcomer Keyshawn Embery-Simpson who made the biggest bench contribution scoring 12 points in a little over three minutes of clock time starting at the nine minute mark in the second half.
“He got the ball on the baseline and attacked,” Anderson recalled. “Tied the game up at 50 all. Now, our defense is attacking. We’re rebounding the ball. We’re pushing the ball. Catching him in the open floor and then he’s knocking down shots. It’s in him. We’ve see it in practice so it was good to see it take place in a game.”
In that stretch Arkansas took an 11 point lead. “He was the difference maker,” Figger affirmed. “He only played 13 minutes but you score 14 in 13, that’s a pretty good number. We underestimated what he was capable of.”
Embery-Simpson has not only been under the radar for opposing teams but for Arkansas as well. Rated the top high school player in the state of Oklahoma as a junior at Midwest City where he averaged 27 points a game, he suffered an injury which limited his playing time to just 10 games his senior year. Embery-Simpson admitted that he’s just now starting to get his confidence back.
“I know it’s going to take time,” he suggested. “Just trying to get back to how I was on both ends and conditioning-wise all around so I can have confidence in whatever I do.”
And so this team will enter SEC play at 9-3. Not the 11-1 the fans were looking for before that pre Christmas slide but perhaps not the disaster some, like me, were preparing for with SEC play just ahead.
There’s always a danger in making bold assumptions while a season is in progress. That Western Kentucky loss doesn’t look quite as bad with the Hilltoppers’ 83-76 win over 15th ranked Wisconsin on Saturday. Those who cover the sport nationally have been saying for a while now that there is more parity than ever in the college ranks. In many cases you have to look beyond the name of a school to see the talent and coaching that is evident over the course of a season.
Is this Arkansas team back on track? It looked to me that that they were getting there, seeing the Austin Peay game in person. But as Lou Holtz once observed, “In sports nothing is ever good as it seems or as bad as it seems.”