Midway through the Vandy game on Saturday, my temperature started rising. I'm not sure it had anything to do with the uncharacteristic play of the Razorbacks, but it's hard to separate the two in my mind. Since coming down with the flu, I have only what is literally the foggiest notion of how to explain the schizophrenic performance of our Hogs. Maybe it's the meds, but I might have a mild case of Capgras delusion — a condition that convinces the patient that someone close to him has been replaced by an imposter. In this case, an imposter with a decent free throw percentage.
Whatever had the Hogs flailing miserably in Alabama only days before they dominated a team that had in turn taken down the No. 1 Vols only days prior is clearly beyond my ken, double dose of cough syrup or no. Somehow, between Wednesday and Saturday, the team improved their shooting percentage by over 20 percent. The return of Patrick Beverly's range couldn't have come at a better time, especially considering that Shan Foster couldn't miss blindfolded.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Hogs improved their production at the charity stripe from a game-losing 9-16 to a game-winning 13-18. A good way to tell whether we'll win or lose any given game is by keeping an eye on our free throw percentage. It's a tangible indicator of our mental condition. This was never more apparent than when Sonny Weems was sinking clutch free throws at the end of Saturday's game.
But why the big difference? What really are the vicissitudes of “the road”? Are we talking too much greasy fast food? Uncomfortable beds? Jet lag? Surely you can learn to ignore a hostile crowd (though Alabama's crowd would be especially easy to ignore, barely pushing past the 5,000 mark). I might be doped up and confused, but that just doesn't compute. How the moderate discomfort of unfamiliar surroundings translates into wildly divergent shot percentages at home and away games must amount to something less tangible, something you might have a hard time coaching.
Coach Pelphrey's biggest challenge this season has been the mental and emotional stability of this squad. This has little to do with intelligence, but an awful lot to do with focus and tenacity. A useful shorthand might be the catch-all “discipline,” but no one can accuse Pelphrey of short-shrifting that necessity. DeHeathification is probably the most descriptive term. Instilling these intangibles in a team that spent the last three years under another system, one with different expectations and different values, might be asking too much of a first-year coach, especially one with a relatively short resume.
At this point, we can probably count on making the tournament. We might even make it past the first round. I suppose that will make us all pretty happy. But the real consolation prize will be that our young coach has learned a lot about the psychology of winning and losing, about ways to motivate a team to maintain their concentration throughout the season. From his years on the court, Pel obviously knows how to operate in that environment. This year takes him one step closer to gaining a skill that makes veteran coaches so valuable. He's learning how to create that environment.