The first week of SEC basketball hearkened back to "40 Minutes of Hell" all right. Hell on the eyes, mind you, but let's not split hairs.
Arkansas scored a combined 107 points in two full games to begin the conference slate, but fortunately extracted a split because Vanderbilt was apparently told Saturday night to play the role of patsy to the Hogs' Globetrotters. The Commodores, thoroughly depleted for the first time in years, coughed up 25 turnovers and scored 33 points, a gap so narrow that it jars the senses. Adopting a positive angle here: a lot of Vandy's gaffes were a function of Arkansas extending its press and preying upon Vandy's backcourt inexperience.
It was nonetheless the least commanding 23-point win you'll likely ever see, principally because the transition game that is normally a staple of a Mike Anderson team is completely absent right now. As the Hogs muddled to a 21-11 halftime lead, there seemed to be no player other than Marshawn Powell who wanted to initiate any sort of offense. Smothering pressure would generate a turnover, then Arkansas would swing the ball around the perimeter, unintentionally bleeding the shot clock as a lethargic Bud Walton Arena crowd pined for somebody to attack. This is another chronically poor shooting team — 31% from three-point range through half the schedule — so when the Hogs are left with a contested 23-foot heave at the end of a possession it hardly bodes well.
Regrettably, that means that Anderson's brand facially resembles that of Stan Heath or John Pelphrey at this early juncture of his Razorback tenure. Because there is no Ronnie Brewer-caliber swingman and no Rotnei Clarke-level gunner, the offense actually looks worse than it did under the prior regimes. B.J. Young has worldly gifts but his motivation ebbs and flows: after a muted first half Saturday he opened the second half with a run of 12 straight points on his own, and then essentially shelved it the rest of the night. Powell had a take-charge, 17-point showing in the win...three days after he was scoreless in the ugly 18-point defeat at Texas A&M.
The game against the Aggies made the Vanderbilt performance appear artistic by comparison. Arkansas scuffled in the first half but was ostensibly in the game, then A&M simply crushed the Hogs in every conceivable manner over the last 20 minutes. By all objective and subjective criteria, it was one of the worst Razorback performances in the last quarter-century, offered up against a team that had been beaten by Southern University just before Christmas.
I observed recently that Arkansas's lack of a third option neuters the team, and for as obvious as that may have seemed, it also appears that Anderson is experiencing great frustration trying to find that aggressor. The crowd loves Kikko Haydar, and it is a justified appreciation. The junior guard is small but unquestionably fearless, has incredible confidence in his shot (and has drained 12 of 22 bombs thus far), and most importantly, takes care of the ball. With only two turnovers in 159 minutes, Haydar has been dependable with the ball in his hands or taking flight from them.
Not to get too far ahead of myself here, but Haydar's got the sort of moxie and smarts that bring to mind former Drake University guard Adam Emmenecker, the 2007-08 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year who rose from obscurity, earned a scholarship and coolly seized the reins of a Cinderella team his senior year. Emmenecker took all of 36 shots combined over his first three years, and was never a long-range threat, so Haydar actually brings a better array of skills.
This isn't necessarily an advocacy piece for Haydar to start stealing minutes from others, though it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify extended minutes for some players who have been noted disappointments. But Anderson's increased appreciation for the way Haydar competes on the court is evident. And this basketball program has benefited from the contributions of non-scholarship players before, namely Eugene Nash and Ernie Murry, and when the guy near the end of the bench happens to provide an intangible jolt when he gets minutes, personnel adjustments may need to be made. The season has reached its midpoint and it is therefore time for Anderson and his staff to be more settled in their player rotations.