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Defending, Your Life

The comma in the header above would seem errant, but believe me, it is right where it belongs.

Defense does win championships in any sport. It's as trite as a Jimmy Buffett tune, but indisputably on point. Arkansas is now 17-9 overall after last night's listless 19-point defeat in Knoxville, but while the punditry is wholly absorbed in the home-versus-road split, it's the Razorbacks' inability to sustain defensive intensity that looms large in its nine losses.

You only need look at the total points allowed in these nine games: Houston, of all teams, rang up 87 at Verizon Arena early this year. From that point, every team that has beaten the Hogs has surpassed 70 points. Contrast that with the Hogs' defensive effort in 17 wins, in which they've yielded more than 70 only two times (the 98-88 win against Mississippi State in the SEC opener and the equally impressive 82-74 win over Vanderbilt last month).

Tennessee got off to an almost predictably scalding start last night, sinking 13 of its first 15 shots from the field en route to a 24-point lead that never shrunk back to single digits despite Hogs' best efforts after halftime. The Vols are at least a considerably better offensive team than Georgia, which rolled up 81 points in routing the Hogs a week earlier. Mark Fox's Bulldogs rate somewhere between Ukraine Tech and Hamburg Barber College in the national scoring ranks.

Mike Anderson's entire scheme is built around pressure on the ball, and while teams will invariably get hot at home on occasion and break the press for open looks, it's disconcerting to watch teams like Georgia and Tennessee get and then take advantage of such clear shots. You cannot routinely look at Georgia's team field goal percentage (.393) and points per game (61.6) and assume that its players are worse shooters than those on any other roster.

It's therefore readily apparent that Arkansas enters the last stretch of the 2011-12 season with two major obstacles to making a last-ditch run to the NCAA tournament: team fatigue and team psyche. A squad laden with sophomores and freshmen is simply not used to the grind of 30 to 35 games against high-quality competition, nor is it strong enough mentally to rid itself of the albatross that SEC road trips are feeding each week. That drags on a team.

Perhaps it was foolish to assume the team's 15-5 run to start the year would continue given all these factors. But Anderson, having cut his teeth under Nolan Richardson, is the kind of coach who theoretically should have the best-conditioned squad on the planet given the frenetic pace and movement his system employs. When Anderson is afforded the luxury of greater depth, perhaps these tendencies will reverse, but right now he just has to summon what he can from what he has left, and get this team feeling good about itself again.