State of the Hogs: Mid-term Grades

Arkansas is in first place in the SEC West. That's better than this writer thought in preseason.

Arkansas is halfway through the Southeastern Conference basketball schedule. Yep, right where I thought they'd be in preseason, 5-3 and atop the SEC West.

Actually, no one picked them there. A hopeful prediction in preseason would have been third or fourth, probably behind Mississippi State, Ole Miss and maybe even behind Auburn. LSU was the lone team that most thought the Hogs could beat in the West.

LSU is as bad as advertised, winless in the SEC. And the Hogs get the Tigers twice in the second half of the SEC schedule. The first meeting is this week on Wednesday night at Bud Walton.

I can't kid anyone and say I saw this coming. Yes, I thought this team would win more than two SEC games, the grand total last year. I just didn't see most of them coming in the first half of the SEC schedule when they played Mississippi State twice and at Kentucky. I thought all three of those would be losses. I didn't know if they would win at Ole Miss or Georgia. For sure, the Hogs would lose at Ole Miss.

Someone asked me yesterday to give this team mid-term grades since it's at the middle of the conference season. So here goes:

Effort: B-plus. I'm talking about conference play only here, but I don't think you can mark them off too much after the way they've fought from behind to win their last four games. They've played solid as a rock in crunch time in all four.

Coaching: B-plus. John Pelphrey, by his own admission, isn't perfect. But to make adjustments at halftime to rally his team in four straight is an accomplishment. He's done more than a decent job to keep them playing hard and figuring out the buttons to push when the game has been on the line. I see improvement in many areas. Just to hold this team together after all of the suspensions and losses before Christmas is a major plus in the coaching category.

Defense: C-plus. This is the area that has worried me all year. I thought there were enough weapons on offense to score against most teams. That was obvious when they ate up a decent Texas defense just before the start of conference play. I just saw too many mistakes on defense. But this team is starting to fix some of its problems, most notably the dribble penetration that seems to free up 3-point shooters and create problems for the defensive rebounding. Stef Welsh, Marcus Britt and Rotnei Clarke have improved their perimeter defense in the last month.

Offense: A. This is the strength of this team. It has four scorers in Courtney Fortson, Rotnei Clarke, Marshawn Powell and Mike Washington. Even Stef Welsh and Marcus Britt have shown better offensive capabilities in the last month. Of course, Fortson is the straw that stirs the drink. But he gets some of his openings for his strong moves to the basket because Clarke and Powell must be guarded tight.

There have been some real surprises, most notably the way the Hogs played at Ole Miss. They were superb, overcoming foul trouble. Julysses Nobles gave the Hogs valuable minutes when Fortson was on the bench. Then, there was Stephen Cox's solid defensive work against Auburn. I didn't see that coming from either one, but they probably benefited from extra minutes during the first semester when suspensions reduced the bench.

I've thought all along that this team would do better in February. I thought it would take a full month for Fortson to play himself into game shape after missing the first half of the season. If his best basketball of the season is still ahead, it sure looks good for February.

I knew Fortson was good. I heard all of the tales from Hawgs Illustrated writer Dudley Dawson before he came to campus. And I was impressed by what Rob Evans said in preseason last year about Fortson. I was listening when Evans, UA assistant, said Fortson was special, but his best basketball might not come until his sophomore season. He predicted a learning curve.

Fortson's play has improved this year. He's shooting better (from the field and from the line), but that's not what I see as the most significant development in his game. He's much tougher mentally. He's always been tough physically, but he let the little things bother him. He sulked when calls didn't go his way. And with the way he plays, he's not going to get all the calls.

He puts SEC officials in a bind on every play. Some of the calls are very close. Did Fortson initiate the contact? Was it a block or a charge? Is he out of control? Those are the questions the officials have to ask on a lot of his plays and some of them aren't going his way.

The good news is that you can't tell it in Fortson's face as much this year as last. If he doesn't get a call, he moves on. He still can improve there, but his poise is a strength now.

What I see is that the Hogs have one of the top five players in the SEC right now with Courtney Fortson. He was the best player on the floor in each of the last four games. He's likely to be the best player in the game over the next three to five games.

Put a circle on your calendar for Feb. 17. That's when South Carolina comes to town. The Gamecocks have a terrific point guard in Devin Downey, the league's top scorer. It should be a terrific matchup. I'm not sure they will actually guard each other. Both might be too valuable to cover the other guard. Fortson has played a lot of two guard on defense of late and that might be the case against Carolina.

Either way, fans will get a rare treat, two of the nation's best point guards on the floor together. It could be an epic battle.

I've looked forward to this game for a long time. They are both special players. But it could be a special game if things go well for the Hogs over the next two games.

Who would have figured that the Hogs could be trying to stay in first place in the SEC West when Carolina came to town in the middle of February?

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