Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What Happened to Arkansas?

Rewind back to the night of January 6. Arkansas had just defeated then-No. 7 Texas, 67-61, a win that came just one week after the Razorbacks knocked off then-No. 4 Oklahoma, 96-88. The win over the Longhorns improved Arkansas' record to 12-1 and put the Razorbacks in the short list of contenders for the SEC title. Michael Washington was becoming a household name on the interior, while point guard Courtney Fortson was being mentioned amongst the top freshmen in the country. Rotnei Clarke was getting talked about as the best three-point shooter around.

Fast forward to the present time. Arkansas is now coming off its fourth consecutive loss since that big win over Texas, a 22-point drubbing at the hands of Auburn -- on the Razorbacks' homecourt. It was their worst home loss ever in Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas is 0-4 and sitting in last place in the SEC West. The NCAA Tournament hopes that the Razorbacks harbored just three weeks ago are now all but gone, unless they can turn their season around quickly. That doesn't seem likely, though, based on what has gone on during the losing streak.
All four losses were by double-digits, by an average of more than 15 points per game. Fortson is averaging 12.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game during the streak, but more disturbingly, he is committing 5.4 turnovers per contest. Washington has had games of seven points and eight points. Clarke has been shut out twice, and 3-for-17 from beyond the arc. According to Kenpom.com, Arkansas had an offensive efficiency of below 92 just once all season prior to the losing streak (the loss to Missouri State); however, its offensive efficiency in each of the past four games has been below 92. The Razorbacks' defensive efficiency has been over 103 in each game and they are struggling to force turnovers. Additionally, Arkansas has dug itself into an early hole in each game, and essentially given up after allowing an early lead.
What is the reason for the sudden decrease in performance? It can't be as simple as the start of SEC play and the increase in competiton -- the SEC is way down this year and Arkansas already had those aforementioned wins over Oklahoma and Texas. Their lack of able bodies could be an answer. Head coach John Pelphrey could only suit up 10 players -- including a former golfer and a walk-on -- over the weekend against Auburn because of a variety of issues. Also, Arkansas is a very young team, with no seniors in its rotation and three freshmen in the starting lineup. Still, those are not excuses to get run out of the building four games in a row by SEC teams who are not even the cream of the crop in the conference, outside of Florida. Simply put, the effort has not been there.
It doesn't get much easier for Arkansas, either. Three of its next five games are on the road, with the home contests against Alabama on Thursday, and Tennessee next week. After that stretch, Kentucky and LSU come to town. The Razorbacks are not completely out of the NCAA Tournament hunt just yet, but they probably need to go at least 5-2 in those seven games. That would put them at 17-7 (5-6 in the SEC) heading into their last five games -- a stretch that includes contests against Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Alabama. Right now, though, Arkansas just has to get a conference win and jumpstart a turnaround.
The Razorbacks do have the talent, as evidenced by its big wins just a few short weeks ago. However, they need to begin showing more heart and determination, because their season has quickly spiraled into a disaster that might be too powerful to turnaround immediately.

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