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Critical stretch

The minute you take a shine to an Arkansas Razorback team is almost assuredly the same minute you have your sanity tested.



The minute you take a shine to an Arkansas Razorback team is almost assuredly the same minute you have your sanity tested.

Basketballers have taken over for the mercurial gridiron team in this regard. After a mostly enjoyable and encouraging dozen games of nonconference action, the hardcourt Hogs have been a bewildering sort in SEC play, frustratingly starting 2-3 against a challenging, but not necessarily impossible array of teams. Losing to Kentucky at Rupp Arena was expected, though going down by 26 points after a competitive first half was a real source of disappointment. Dropping a home game right after Christmas to a ranked but nonetheless flawed Florida team was thoroughly dissatisfying.

The real trough happened at Bud Walton Arena a week ago Tuesday night when a rather unheralded but certainly well-coached Mississippi State team sauntered in and dispatched the Hogs 84-78 in front of what constitutes a decent midweek crowd these days (official attendance was a healthy 15,111). Ben Howland was arguably given too short a leash at UCLA after he failed to capitalize further on his early successes there, so the Bulldogs ended up landing a pretty nice gem when they pulled him out of a brief unemployment back in 2015.

Howland's first team went 14-17; this squad is already up to a dozen wins. You can see why Howland's brand of basketball has caught on in Starkville — he's always favored the long, athletic player who might be a little less than polished. Quinndary Weatherspoon is that sort of player, and he tormented the Hogs to the tune of 25 points and dead-solid three-point accuracy, which, naturally, Arkansas's late-reacting defense did nothing to disrupt.

If there is anything remotely consistent about the program these days, it's that someone like Weatherspoon always seems to get into a shooting rhythm against the Razorbacks' backcourt defenders. Against Kentucky, De'Aaron Fox was electric and largely unchecked going to the basket. Weatherspoon had a cushion from long range most of the night and took full and regular advantage of it.

Arkansas bounced back somewhat on Saturday against hapless Missouri, at least doing what the football team could not a few weeks ago: casting aside a Mizzou program a long way off from its prior zenith. The 92-73 victory was needed tonic for the team and the beleaguered coaching staff, and even considering the Tigers' terrible record and depth, it was reassuring to see the Hogs restore their approach to balance. Five players went for double figures, and two more registered eight points, with the bench putting up 38 points among four players. Again, a win is nice to have, in any circumstance.

But even that box score from the Mizzou rout reveals a problem: Both teams had 14 turnovers. The Hogs were unusually proficient and smart from three-point distance (10 of 23), which isn't always the case, but they still fouled a ton (25 of those). So a team built around a philosophy — arguably a bygone one at this point — of pressuring a team into all kinds of errors isn't really doing much of that, and worse yet, the Hogs are creating cheap opportunities for their opponent at the free-throw line. Both the Bulldogs and Tigers outshot the Hogs substantially from the stripe.

This is where the itch that Mike Anderson was supposed to scratch is flaring up, time after time. Arkansas just isn't very good defensively, and hasn't been for a good stretch, and that is rather inexcusable when Moses Kingsley is on the court much of the time. The Hogs seem completely ill-equipped to deal with the opposing team's frequent spurts. In the Kentucky game, a three-point Hog deficit at halftime zoomed to well over 20 in seemingly no time. You may say, "But Kentucky!" Well, the Bulldogs also fended off every Hog rally with guys who aren't of the caliber that man the court in Lexington.

This week's slate is Texas A&M away from home, which by the time you read this will have gone stellar or sour. At least the program's longstanding road woes are being relieved somewhat, and A&M is subpar this year. The weekend home game against LSU will be more interesting regardless of the Aggie outcome, however, because this Tiger team is off to a rocky start and looks more vulnerable than Mississippi State probably did, in hindsight. A 2-0 week would put Arkansas up to 15-4, 4-3 with another dicey patch ahead, and that probably keeps the Hogs in line for a lower seeding in the NCAA Tournament. But if it ends up being a split or a not-unfathomable 0-fer, then the team has hit a dangerous state of collapse.

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