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Hogs need focus on growth

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I think I'm growing too calloused to be truly disappointed in anything but a pitiful defeat. Deep in the heart of Texas last Wednesday, driving my wife to Corpus Christi for a weekend conference, I somehow managed to pick up the Tennessee broadcast on an AM station. So thrilled was I for a break in the highway's monotony and an unexpected connection to the game that the close loss failed to register its usual hours of depression. I ate a late dinner with friends in Austin within an hour of the whistle and hardly thought of what could have been.

Watching the DVRed Mississippi State game late Sunday night after a full day's drive, blessedly ignorant of the outcome, I was still able to feel the swollen pride of a devoted fan during that fantastic first half, and yet the second half meltdown neither came as a complete surprise nor pulled any ill-conceived rugs out from under my feet. I slept soundly and didn't relive the pain of those 16 swished three pointers until after my Monday morning coffee was good and gone.

What's happened to me? I'm far from resigned, though I'm not starry-eyed enough to imagine some kind of redemption following this plunge. Given extraordinary circumstances, we could still make the NCAA tournament, but would that alone do us any real good? Our problems run deeper than youth, and several aspects of those seven conference losses (e.g. free throw percentage, points allowed, and defensive rebounding) are unforgivable in any respectable Division I team. I think we have better things to worry about than immediate success.

At the moment, our concerns are so insular, the composition of our Razorbacks so fragile, that talk of success beyond the basic team unit seems ridiculous. We have reached the point of the season when at least half of conference games can be assumed lost. Whatever late season run we could muster, save being capped by a tremendous success like the SEC tournament trophy, would do little to salvage our hopes for March. The mental states of the freshman, the fight against exhaustion and apathy within the ranks, the continued stress on skill and effort — all are more important than the blunter validation that accompanies simply winning a game or advancing in a tournament. We need to focus on smaller successes, discrete victories at the fundamental level, slowly stretching that single half of good basketball we seem capable of right now to a full 40 minutes.

We are beyond worrying about our road record versus our home record. Only one record counts, wherever you lay your head the night before. We're lucky enough to get one of the better teams on our remaining schedule at home, but I'm not convinced we'll beat the Wildcats with some indecipherable geographic advantage. Coach Billy Gillespie might be in only his second year at Kentucky, but he's got the size and depth that eludes Pelphrey. We only win this game if the shots are falling. As of this writing, Gillespie's Wildcats are in a skid of their own, having dropped three consecutive games. They had a week off to prepare for Florida at home, so I'm guessing they'll have bounced back against the Gators. Coming into Bud Walton this Saturday, they might not need the win more than we do, but they'll likely want it more. With a season seemingly down the tubes, we'll have to get by on need for now.

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