LITTLE ROCK — Desperate for a road victory, Arkansas got the winning formula half right.
In my simplified world, the idea is for the visiting team to get the game into the final minutes and then have somebody make a play. The Razorbacks were one for two in Tuscaloosa.
The 59-56 loss cuts both ways. It is encouraging up against SEC road losses by 18, 12, and 21; discouraging in that Arkansas frittered away chance after chance and that Alabama won despite an offense that was stagnant much of the night.
Whether or not the Alabama game reflects meaningful progress or was an anomaly won’t be answered until the Razorbacks play at Vanderbilt next Saturday, at Auburn the following week, and at LSU on the final playing date in February. At that point, we should have a pretty good idea where the Razorbacks are going to fit in the SEC.
I don’t expect them to beat Florida in Fayetteville on Tuesday night or Kentucky in Walton Arena in early March. If that is the case, they will have to win two on the road to get to 9-9 and the three opponents in February appear to be the most vulnerable.
In light of those projections, today’s game qualifies as a must-win against a Tennessee offense constructed much differently than the one Arkansas faced Thursday night. Mostly, Alabama big man Moussa Gueye stood around. Tennessee’s big man, Jarnell Stokes, totaled 34 points and 29 rebounds in the Vols’ back-to-back victories over Alabama and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has complained to SEC officials that Stokes, barely 19 but 6-foot-8 and 270, is being penalized because of his size. "Allow him to be big," is Martin’s plea.
If Stokes receives an inbounds pass, he will secure it, unlike the Alabama big men who lost the ball at least five times in those situations, a happening harped on by analyst Bob Knight.
Arkansas’ assignment is to contain Jordan McRae and prevent Stokes from getting easy baskets. Turnovers would short-circuit the latter.
Down the stretch in Tuscaloosa, the best thing Arkansas did was compete. Other than that, the Razorbacks’ most experienced players often were at fault:
—Marshawn Powell’s pass that was made for picking enabled Alabama to break a tie at 52.
—Out of a timeout, nothing happened on offense and Kikko Haydar was forced to try a long 3 just to beat the shot block.
—Mardracus Wade, who shoots better than 70 per cent from the line, missed two after Nick Jacobs, who was barely above 40 percent, made two for 56-52.
—BJ Young’s dunk cut the lead to one, but he appeared to be contemplating a 3 and used up 12 seconds getting to the basket, leaving less than five ticks on the clock.
Young’s heave at the buzzer wasn’t close, one of 16 misses in Arkansas’ 19 attempts from outside. Game after game, the absence of a reliable 3-point shooter has been evident and winning begins with making baskets.
In fact, the only surprise during the first part of the week was Missouri’s third straight road loss, 73-70 to LSU. The winners shot 55 percent; the losers 37.7 percent, including a quick-on-the-trigger 3 by experienced point guard Phil Pressey after coach Frank Haith told his team not to be in a rush.
Kentucky winning at Oxford was no upset even though Mississippi was ranked and the Wildcats were not. The shot-blocking of Nerlens Noel after his fourth foul was remarkable and vital.
After the Alabama loss, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said he told his players that he loved their effort and the Razorbacks didn’t lose, they just ran out of time.
Agree on his first point; not so much on the second, but the Thursday night-Saturday afternoon turnaround does not leave time for contemplating history.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.