I did a three hour radio call-in show the day after Arkansas’ 19 point loss to No. 3 Tennessee in basketball. I was suprised at how calm the callers were. Most seemed to understand that the game had been a men vs boys contest with Tennessee putting juniors and seniors on the court to square off against Arkansas’ freshmen and sophomores.
They noted that Mike Anderson’s players didn’t quit, echoing what Anderson himself said in his pre Ole Miss press conference.
“We had some guys out there in the second half that could have folded their tent but they didn’t and so I’m looking to get that fighting spirit and that kind of mindset,” (in the Ole Miss game) Anderson noted.
Sophomore forward Daniel Gafford, who fouled out late with 10 points and seven rebounds, told reporters that the key to having success in Oxford is to avoid the typically disastrous start that Hog fans have seen way too often during the just completed semester break.
“We got to come out and we got to have our heads on straight from the beginning to the end. We can’t just come out and play a certain amount of minutes ’cause there’s teams out there that’ll do us just like Tennessee did us if we do that same exact thing,” Gafford stressed.
More than likely Arkansas will run into a buzzsaw Saturday at noon in a game to be televised on the SEC Network. The Rebels are coming off of an 83-69 loss to LSU. The game ended Ole Miss’ perfect start at home, dropping the Rebs to 7-1 in the Pavilion, 13-3 overall and 3-1 in SEC play.
In contrast to sports talk radio and what I run into face-to-face with fans, the Internet has not been kind to Anderson, the general sentiment being that after eight years in charge of Hog basketball much more should be expected. Many cite what Tennesse coach Rick Barnes has accomplished in three plus seasons in Knoxville. The Vols are 15-1, unbeaten at home and in the SEC. They are swamping league opponents by an average of 25 points per game.
But Barnes, who put Texas into the NCAA tournament in 16 of the 17 seasons he was in Austin including a pair of Great Eight finishes, was also fired by the school reportedly because what he did wasn’t good enough for its fans, making the athletic department look rather silly at this point. In three and a half seasons, Shaka Smart, Barnes replacement, is just 24–33 in Big 12 play.
Admittedly this is an extreme example but it does serve to emphsize why athletic directors are often cool to the notion of getting rid of a coach who is winning games but not at the rate that some fans expect. Anderson, for instance, has never had a losing season in his career but at Arkansas has never advanced beyond the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, a sticking point with his critics.
Some of the radio callers pointed out that Arkansas appears to be at a place where Tennessee was two seasons ago when the Vols went 16-16 with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores. Barnes himself told his own media that he can relate to some of the struggles Anderson is going through and suggested that Arkansas’ head coach has no choice but to be patient like he was and good things will happen down the road.
But how far down the road? Again, there are a lot of Hog baskeball fans who think Anderson has gone too far down that road already. He can probably turn back some of that criticism if his team improves over the next few weeks and if fans can see that his young players are getting better. But is there any sign of that right now?
Well, Arkansas’ scoring has picked up in the previous two games. After averaging eighty-seven points a game through the first seven games of the season, Arkansas scored just 70 points a game over the next seven, all during the semester break. The last two times out the Hogs have lost but scored in the upper 80’s.
Is the offense coming back? Sophomore guard Mason Jones, who scored 30, 22 and 18 points in the last three games, thinks so. He was particularly pleased that freshman guard Isaiah Joe, who had scored just six points against Florida and five vs LSU, dropped in 23 in the Tennessee game.
“Us knocking down shots and us getting going on the outside can get Daniel going on the inside,” Jones predicted, “and all the other players on the inside so it’s good to see Isaiah back knocking down shots.”
Can the team’s two shooting guards get their shots to fall at Ole Miss and can Gafford get back on track inside after rough night in Knoxville? If that happens maybe they’ll have a chance but they’ll need to pick up their defense too. While the Hogs have scored 88 and 87 points the last two times out they gave up 94 and 106 points.
I have pushed the theory that perhaps Anderson drilled his players so much during a time when the university campus was empty and they had an almost unlimted amount of time to spend in their practice facility, that they became mechanical, much in the way a golfer will often struggle after a series of lessons.
As long as you’re thinking about changes that you’re trying to make to your game everytime you swing the club, the results are not usually good. In time you may well benefit from those lessons but only after you stop thinking and start playing on autopilot.
Or maybe the Internet crowd is right. What we’re seeing is not a young team struggling to grow up while playing against more experienced competition but one that is either not being coached well, is not absorbing that coaching or is not talented enough to compete in what is surely a much improved basketball conference.
Either way, past experience tells me that it is not wise to come to long term conclusions about a season that has not yet been played out.