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Razorbacks Finding Their Identity on Defense

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After a few subpar performances defensively, Arkansas seems to have made defense a priority.

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Anderson learned from the engineer and originator of Forty Minutes of Hell. Defense was the name of the game as Nolan Richardson's teams wore down opponents as the game went on.

His motto was, "When they’re grabbing their shorts, we’ll be grabbing the rim." The legs are the first to go, then the mind. Richardson’s teams owned the final 10 minutes of games because of the constant exhaustion from Arkansas’ full-court pressure.

As conference play began this season, Arkansas seemed to have abandoned its defense-first mentality. The Razorbacks thrive on live-ball turnovers and constant pressure that lead to easy transition points, but weren't wreaking the kind of havoc they wanted.

Then Ole Miss and Alabama entered Bud Walton Arena and scored nearly 100 points on the Arkansas defense. Granted, the Razorbacks still knocked off the Tide in overtime thanks to 30 points from Michael Qualls and the heroics of Bobby Portis, that wasn’t what Anderson wanted to see.

The Rebels nearly shattered the Bud Walton Arena opponent scoring record in a 96-82 win, and Alabama also came dangerously close. Adjustments needed to be made in the worst way.

The Razorbacks have had their moments on the defensive end, but they have been shaky for a majority of the season. Arkansas allowed 79 points to Alabama State, 95 to Iowa State and 94 to Northwestern State this season, along with the aforementioned Ole Miss and Alabama games.

It’s fair to say the Razorbacks have not been as dedicated on the defensive end of the floor this season, but after the latest stretch in conference play, a change in the team’s mentality is apparent.

Since giving up 96 and 91 points in back-to-back home games, Arkansas has been stifling on defense in its last five league games. For the first time in program history, the Razorbacks have held their conference opponents to fewer than 65 points in five consecutive games.

The last time this happened in 1984, according to HogStats.com, when Arkansas was a member of the Southwest Conference.

The more impressive feat, however, is the fact that two of the five games were on the road. Anderson and the Razorbacks have been able to take their defense with them outside of Fayetteville.

Arkansas lost at Florida on the heels of a controversial call at the end of the game on Alandise Harris, but the defense against the Gators was terrific. Florida shot just 34 percent from the floor and 18 percent from behind the 3-point line on its own court.

Then there was Saturday. Mississippi State, who, let’s be honest, is offensively challenged, was held to just nine first-half points on 2-of-21 shooting. The Razorback defense did not allow a made field goal for the last 13 minutes of the half, and the Razorbacks also shut out the Bulldogs from beyond the 3-point line.

Arkansas’ offense hasn’t always been strong in recent games, but its defense has. Qualls’ production has dwindled, and Anthlon Bell struggled with his shot until Saturday. Portis has by far been Arkansas’ most consistent player.

The Razorbacks had a moment Saturday, I believe. During the middle of the 20-0 run, the crowd was at fever pitch and the players were trying to get the sellout crowd more into the game. Call me crazy, but I believe the nine-point first half defensively was the turning point and signature moment for Arkansas so far this season. Every good team has them, and I think we saw it Saturday in Bud Walton.

But Anderson’s club is now hanging its hat on the defensive end. Offense will come and go, but teams who are consistently irritating and tough defensively always have a shot.

Anderson is often scrutinized for his inability to make key adjustments, but his decision to recommit and make defense the team's top priority may have saved Arkansas’ season.

Here are some defensive numbers on the first five SEC games compared to the last five:

First five games: 81.2 points per game, 50.7 percent field goals, 47.7 percent 3-point field goals

Last five games: 55.4 points per game, 35.4 percent field goals, 23.9 percent 3-point field goals

– Opponents have scored less than 30 points in seven of the last 10 halves.

– Mississippi State did not score over a 13:22 span of the first half Saturday.