Without a doubt, the Arkansas basketball team sat on a big fat whoopee cushion last week in a blowout loss to Iowa State and an absolute collapse in the last minute of regulation at Clemson.
The program had been riding a long-time high with a #18 ranking while undefeated and quality wins over Iona and a big road win against SMU under its belt. But those wins already seem to be a distant memory in the minds of many fans. Those losses last week seemed to cause some sort of traumatic relapse. Like an addict who'd gone through extensive rehab only to fall back off the wagon in exasperating fashion.
The question facing the program right now is whether it was a temporary setback or if we're in for the same type of befuddling road problems we've seen at Arkansas since well before Mike Anderson returned.
Although the Clemson loss brought back a flood of painful memories, it's still potentially just one game. As improved as this Razorback team is, they were still going to play a handful of bad games through the year. That probably won't be the last one. This is college basketball. Even the elite teams play a few bad games each year.
Losses like the one to Clemson are exactly the types of losses that could keep the Hogs from achieving their goals, but at the same time, wins like the ones at SMU are the type that can help them get there. That win over the Mustangs should not be so quickly forgotten. SMU has helped Arkansas out so far by going 4-0 since the Hogs went down to Dallas. If they continue to improve and have a good year, that win will only help the Razorbacks more.
It starts with this weekend's game against Dayton. The Flyers are a good team, but one Arkansas should be able to handle at Bud Walton Arena. After that Arkansas has four lower level games to prep for the SEC opener at Georgia. That game against the Bulldogs will be key. Arkansas opened SEC play the last two years with consecutive disasters on the road to bad Texas A&M teams, but the chance to knock off Georgia in Athens is a chance to get back into a nice groove, as well as simply not starting SEC play in a hole for the third straight year.
Long story short, of course the Clemson loss was a gut punch, but at the end of the year, it's still just one of at least 32 games. If that's the worst thing on Arkansas' NCAA Tournament resume, it's probably okay. But let's try to avoid worse than that.
Something that could help out with that is if the team picked up its defensive performance. We're a quarter of the way through the regular season at this point so it's fair to start looking at stats. While the Hogs' are allowing slightly more success from beyond the arc (allowing 36% on threes this year compared to 34.6% last season) teams are having substantially more success inside (allowing 49.2% this year, 225th in the nation compared to 43.6% last year, when they were 24th in the nation) - this is probably the scariest stat going for the team right now.
Many have asked why Moses Kingsley isn't getting more minutes. Without knowing exactly what Mike Anderson is thinking, we do know that Kingsley's defensive stats aren't nearly what they were last season. He's played minutes comparable to the minutes he played last year, a few more per game, in fact, but he's only blocked six shots in eight games. That's less than half the rate he blocked shots last year. His defensive rebounding percentage is only about two-thirds so far what it was last season.
He's not the only culprit. Even though Bobby Ports' offensive game has certainly improved - particularly his jump shooting - his blocks and rebounds are down as well. The team also lost Coty Clarke, who averaged 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals last season, and they miss him badly right now. We were told that Keaton Miles would somewhat fill his role, and he may still eventually, but he's been a non-factor so far this year.
That's not to say everything is worse. Manuale Watkins has been a huge surprise on the defensive end. He's racking up steals better than almost anyone in the country right now. Jacorey Williams is better. Anthlon Bell is better (although he's never been a big defensive player). Anton Beard is having a good start to his freshman season, averaging 4.9 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals in only 12.8 minutes. He'll only get better. We all know Michael Qualls is off to an outstanding start this season.
We also all know Rashad Madden had a terrible game against Clemson. Speaking of bad memories, zero points and five turnovers brought back memories of the sophomore version Madden. At times he's been the best player on the court this season, so it's still way too soon to write him off. I think he'll bounce back. His assist numbers are way up this season at nearly 6 per game, but the Hogs also need him to score, and obviously to take better care of the ball.
Arkansas has played some good teams to start the year but they've also played a few that are worse than any they'll see in SEC play, so you would like to see some of those numbers higher. They'll get great opportunities to pad stats after the Dayton game, but that's hardly the main goal. The Razorbacks should win these five home games before SEC play, but they still need to get better. They must shore up on defense, particularly in the frontcourt. The new guards still need to develop so they can play a more substantial role.
I still think this team makes the NCAA Tournament, so I'm not overly concerned at this point. I don't think they'll blow many games in the last minute like they did against Clemson. But how hard will they make it on themselves?