Last season, the Hogs made a late-schedule run that put them in the NCAA tournament by the skin of their knees. The first team Stan Heath could truly call his own was all over the court, getting by on sheer athleticism, obscuring the weaknesses that had hurt them earlier in the season by out-jumping, out-running and out-gunning their opponents. Good as it was to see the Razorbacks win a few games at the end of a disappointing season, I almost resented them for making the Heath system look deceptively successful.
Athleticism doesn't consistently win ball games. Phenomenal athletes might be able to pull their shit together at the last minute and jump an inch higher than the rest, but the doldrums of early-to-midseason contests has them blind to the free man off a double team, unable to penetrate the simplest zone, incapable of beating teams that know how to protect the ball and shooting loopers from well beyond the arc out of uncontained frustration. Simple athletes have little chance of besting basketball players.
That's why those And-1 folks will always be scrubs, 720-degree dunks notwithstanding. Kobe lives in a big, big house. Those guys are lucky to have a roof over their heads. Street ball stays outdoors for a reason.
Now those phenomenal athletes of last season are seniors, and failing to feed beasts like Darian Townes and Steven Hill under the basket is just one more symptom of the collapse. Why pack the heat if you don't plan to use it? Atrocious play on the perimeter comes down to shoddy fundamentals and a basic lack of floor intelligence. Marcus Britt needs to be on the floor, developing the presence of mind that Gary Ervin and Stefan Welsh, for all their talent and athleticism, can't seem to muster. His long arms alone will spark our defense and thus ignite our offense.
I grant Coach Pel's point that losing consecutively to Vandy and Tennessee doesn't exactly make South Carolina a weak team. The Gamecocks earned their 9-8 start with what Ray Smuckles might call “hell of scheduling.” The Hogs, on the other hand, certainly didn't schedule for a 2-2 start in conference. If anything, we should be 4-0. But that doesn't mean we can go to sleep on a team that experienced a string of tough nonconference losses against the likes of Clemson, Baylor (!), NC State and USC (!!). Even with Sonny Weems throwing everything short of the kitchen sink through the hoop, we couldn't stack up to the superb guard play of Devon Downey.
The Georgia loss was every bit as ugly, with yet another guard lighting us up and putting on a clinic for our hapless front court. The first minutes were promising, producing some baskets that I'd say were the result of well-executed plays if I didn't know any better, but right before the half we stopped treading water, sank under and never came up for air.
Do I sound bitter? Only because I expect more from our benchful of seniors. We should be killing teams, not only for our superior athleticism but also from the kind of level-headed play and sound fundamentals that are bred out of an accumulation of minutes on the floor. Instead, we get circus shots, selfishness or rainbow passes around the perimeter. Call it what you want, but don't call it basketball.
Next Saturday night in Baton Rouge, we'll have had a week to think over which game we want to play.