Last year, it was a three-game losing streak to open Southeastern Conference play. Right now, it's a two-game losing streak, including a stunner, a home loss to 0-2 South Carolina. So is this the same-old-same-old, or a new plunge for the Arkansas basketball team.
First, let's consider what happened over the last four days. It shouldn't have been a stunner that the Hogs lost at LSU. The Tigers are always tough at home. Even last year's LSU team was a tough nut to crack at home. LSU may not be the league's best team, but they don't know that yet, and are still playing hard. I wasn't shocked that the Hogs lost at Baton Rouge.
Second, let's consider South Carolina. The Gamecocks caught the Hogs just about right. The timing was perfect. First, the nature of the LSU game set things up for the Gamecocks. The Hogs weren't their usual aggressive self because of the way the LSU game went ... 38 LSU free throws ... and they didn't go after the Gamecocks the way they should have or could have.
And, that was a good South Carolina team. The Gamecocks were prepared for Arkansas' press after seeing three good ones in Georgetown, Duke and Florida. Dave Odom, the USC coach, said it wasn't anything they hadn't seen before, and he noted afterwards, "We didn't see Arkansas' best press. I've seen tape and seen them much more aggressive than what we saw in them tonight. I'm sure what happened at LSU had something to do with that."
Remember, South Carolina won at Fayetteville two years ago, with many of the same players, especially the guards that did so well against the Hogs on Wednesday. The Gamecocks weren't intimidated, and hung tough when the Hogs did get their game going midway through the second half.
But, what's going to happen the rest of the way? We may not know for sure until we get to February, but the Hogs will uncover a little of their fate over the next two weeks with home games against Ole Miss and Florida and trips to Georgia and Alabama. They'll do well to split those four games. If they stand 4-4 at that point, it may be a sign that something good is ahead.
Nolan Richardson knows it won't be easy. He said as much Thursday when he met the press before taking his team to the locker room for a long film session designed to correct some flaws that he saw from Wednesday night's 62-60 loss to South Carolina.
"I do know that the SEC is the best league in America from top to bottom," Richardson said. "South Carolina is good. We'll see a good Ole Miss team on Saturday. The SEC wasn't great when we joined it 10 years ago. I thought we were better than most of the teams in the league. But, that's not the way it is now. If we don't play one of our better games, there is a good chance we will lose. That's the way it is night in and night out in the SEC. You better be playing pretty good."
Right now, the Hogs aren't playing at their best. Only Brandon Dean, Teddy Gipson and Jannero Pargo are playing good basketball.
"We aren't hitting on all of our cylinders, and we've got to get some guys playing better pretty quickly," Richardson said. "If we can do that, we'll win some games. The goal is to win some games and somehow be around at the end of the league race. That's the goal. We might be able to do that."
That's what usually happens. Richardson is working overtime trying to find the answer. He gave Blake Eddins a start on Wednesday, and he might tweak the lineup again on Saturday against the Rebels.
"It will be a tough game," Richardson said. "We need to be playing well. They have pretty much dominated us of late. And, we know they will play their best against the Razorbacks."
Indeed, Ole Miss has won eight of the last 10 in the series. They play tough, man-to-man defense, and have taken the Hogs out of their motion offense of late.
"They run through screens," Richardson said. "They are tough, and let you know that if you set a screen to be ready to get hit. Sometimes after you get hit a few times, not many screens get set. We've got to be tough on our screens and be ready to play."
The Hogs were not ready against South Carolina. Richardson noted a flatness in the locker room before the game. He said Thursday that he sensed it, but couldn't change it.
"We did get it turned around by the last 10 minutes and made a game of it," he said. "But, the end of the first half was not very good. And, the idea that we missed two free throws at the end of the half ... when we could have gotten a three-point play on that situation ... didn't help us at halftime. Our team didn't take advantage of the situations that happened. There was a period in the first half when we had a lead that South Carolina wasn't making shots and we had four straight turnovers in the halfcourt. That's four straight trips when we didn't even get a shot, and most of those were Pargo. That's something that I think that will get fixed."
In fact, this writer bets that a lot of things get fixed. Richardson has some tweaking to do, but his track record is that he usually tweaks the right things in late January and early February and the Hogs find their rhythm, foucs and defense.
"We don't have everything on this team, but one thing we do have is some good kids," Richardson said. "They are good people. I've said this several times, and these are the nicest kids that I've had in 38 years. I like this bunch. They are trying. They try to please me and do what I ask. That's why I want to work hard and turn this thing around. I think we'll get it done. I'm going to keep trying, and I think they are going to keep trying, too."
The problem with this team is not with effort. The talent, especially inside, isn't great and that sometimes puts pressure on the entire team to make plays it shouldn't try to make. That happened against South Carolina. If it keeps happening, the Hogs won't win a lot of games. But, I don't think that will continue to take place.
Regardless, it's going to be fun to watch. In the personal view, this is the best time for basketball season. All the games are hardfought and competitive. Let's take another look at where these Hogs are in two weeks and we'll know what they are going to be playing for down the stretch. I bet it's a lot.
Clay Henry, HI.com Publisher