Hogs Must Deal With 'The Nashville Scene'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - These lines from "The Nashville Scene" by Hank Williams Jr. could well sum up Arkansas' scenario after tonight's game here:

"It's a long, long way to the top. And even further when you drop. It's easy to live way beyond your means."

This is one of the favorite trips for reporters who cover the Southeastern Conference.

You've got Broadway (the good one), which is lined with honky-tonks, good pickin', lots of grinnin' and dandy cookin'.

But because of a place originally opened for hosting operas (not the Grand Ole one), most SEC coaches and players hate coming here, where Arkansas faces Vanderbilt in a must-haver tonight.

Memorial Gym opened in 1952, and the Commodores have closed the deal on over 78 percent of their opponents here.

Since Arkansas' 72-63 loss at Alabama on Wednesday night, Hogs juniors Jonathon  Modica, Eric  Ferguson and Rashard Sullivan, along with injured senior Mike Jones, have been trying to explain to their young teammates what the heck this so-called "Memorial Magic" is all about.

It takes a while.

With crowds almost always near or at the 14,168 capacity, and smart students as dedicated - and as apt at creative heckling - as those kids over at Duke, Vanderbilt has ranked among the NCAA's top-30 attendance leaders 23 times since 1977.

But that's just the start of the problem(s) for programs like Arkansas, which has managed to win just two of six games (an overtime encounter when the Hogs went to the 1995 NCAA Tournament final and a 10-point win in 2003) here since joining the SEC.

"Can you hear me now?" is not a commercial gimmick here, but a genuine inquiry, especially of opposing coaches who never get used to the bizarre setup.

The benches are behind the baseline and baskets, which makes communication a nightmare, particularly when your team is at the far end.

"You coach from the baseline, and so you probably only coach half the game because the other half you can't hardly communicate with your team at all," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath, whose 2003 bunch won his only game here.

The floor is raised, a maddening - and sometimes scary, especially for flying, pressing teams - innovation of the late, and apparently maniacal, master architect Edwin Keeble, who designed this joint for basketball and concerts.

"It's not your conventional basketball arena," Heath said. "I don't want to offend anybody from Vanderbilt. It's a tough environment to play in, and it's a great home-court advantage."

Wrote Brad Buchholz of Inside Sports:

"Renowned as the Fenway Park of college basketball, Memorial Gym stands out as one of the lovable, quirky home courts in the game. To visiting coaches it's as stately as an opera house and as irritating as a barking dog.

"The distractions, combined with the immense echo caused by the crowd noise bouncing off the concrete and cinder block interior, make Memorial Gymnasium an upset haven."

Speaking of upset, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson was angry and dismayed after his Hogs lost their first try here, 102-89, in 1993.

He was asked about Memorial Magic.

Noting the disparity in free throws, Richardson countered dryly, "There ain't nothin' magic about that."

After Richardson's 20-win 2000-2001 team was blown away, 81-64, here, furious forward Larry  Satchell put a whoopin' on the visitors' locker room bathroom.

"Vanderbilt is as tough a place to play as there is in college basketball," Heath said.

Check out this from Joe Biddle of the Nashville Tennessean:

"Poll Southeastern Conference coaches on the mystique that permeates Memorial Gym and many will tell you it's not Memorial Magic at all.

"It's Memorial Voo-Doo. It's the Bermuda Triangle of SEC gyms.

"It's never easy to win there."

That includes this season. Vanderbilt is only 15-10, but the Commodores are 13-2 here, their only home losses coming against Florida and Kentucky.

They stomped No. 16 Alabama 70-56 here.

This city is noted for string music, which is strangely fitting for a much different reason. As Arkansas' Ferguson has noted, the rims are forgivably loose in Memorial Gym, making it a shooter's facility.

That's one reason the Commodores almost always are one of the country's best 3-point shooting teams.

At 52 percent, Shan Foster leads the SEC in 3-point shooting during conference games. Four Commodores shoot 40 percent or better from behind the arc, and two more are at 36 percent.

Vanderbilt has fired up 611 3-point attempts, more than any other SEC team (by a long shot), and leads the SEC with an average of 9.8 made treys per game.

The Commodores run a basic offense that thrives on backdoor cutters when opponents focus too hard on 3-pointers.

It's almost a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario, and at 5-7 in SEC play, Arkansas really needs to win this game to keep from blowing any NCAA Tournament bubble chances.

The Hogs had a shoot-around in Memorial Gym on Friday and plan to get an early start on getting more acclimated today even though Heath is trying to downplay the weird configuration to his players.

If the Hogs overlook the strangeness of today's stage, they should be all right.

If not, lots of sour notes, and the Vanderbilt fans will be thrilled to hit them.

Rewind to Hank Williams Jr.:

"And that's the way it is on the Nashville scene."

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