Scouting Report: Arkansas
There's no need to make things complicated: The Arkansas Razorbacks are a young team, a work in progress, an operation that's just beginning to be constructed by first-year coach Mike Anderson. Yet, young and unpolished teams can also be hungry teams, and that's what Vanderbilt will be facing on Tuesday night in Fayetteville. The Commodores will lock horns with an opponent that will play with maximum energy and passion. If coach Kevin Stallings's club can match that intensity and play a mature game at an appropriately slow pace, it should win. This game offers the VU crew a marvelous opportunity to display poise, wisdom and focus in advance of even bigger SEC battles, not to mention the realm of tournament basketball over five weeks from now.
This can't be said for every coach in the United States, but for Mike Anderson, Arkansas really is his dream job. Anderson is a protégé of former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, the man who made the Hogs into a national powerhouse during his stormy yet immensely successful 17-season tenure from 1985 through 2002. Richardson basketball was and is based on the "40 minutes of hell" concept, an attack-first (and always) mode of roundball rooted in deep benches, the constant shuffling in and out of bodies, and unceasing all-court defensive pressure. Anderson has implemented this style at UAB and used it to stun one of Tubby Smith's best Kentucky teams in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Anderson took this formula to Missouri, where he knocked off John Calipari and Memphis in the 2009 West Regional semifinals. Now, Anderson is poised to remake Arkansas in his mentor's image, and it would be unwise to bet against him.
This year, however, Arkansas is inheriting what John Pelphrey left behind. The Razorbacks are making the transition from one way of being to another, and that's the only reason Anderson is unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament in this particular season. In the future, Arkansas has an excellent chance of representing the SEC West in the March Madness derby, but for now, these are odd parts that do not fit neatly. This is a mix of rugged glue guys and high-energy scorers, players who work hard but do not shoot the ball well or run crisp halfcourt sets. They will hound opponents on defense, though, and if Vanderbilt doesn't come ready to play, the Commodores will be given a splash of cold water by Arkansas's defensive pressure. Vigilance and wakefulness must emerge for Stallings' students. Otherwise, they'll receive yet another painful education on the matter of devoting maximum attention to every detail.
There are two noteworthy elements of Arkansas's team profile on a larger scale: First, Arkansas is unbeaten at Bud Walton Arena while conversely being winless in true road games. This makes Vandy's trip to Fayetteville both unfortunate and a genuine opportunity: Vanderbilt would absorb a ratings-reducing loss if it can't get the job done, but a win would strongly bolster this team's sense of identity before the NCAA Tournament, in which it will have to win away from home.
The second major factoid to emerge from a generalized analysis of the Hogs is that ever since they began SEC play, they have scored more than 69 points only once (including their game against Michigan on Jan. 21). In that game, they scored 98 points against Mississippi State. It's worth mentioning the point totals of Arkansas players from the Mississippi State game only because it gives Vanderbilt a snapshot of which players come alive for the Razorbacks when they play a true Mike Anderson-style game… the kind of game they're not yet ready to play on a regular basis.
Forward – Michael Sanchez – Senior, 6-9, 235 2011-12: 4.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg
Sanchez is definitely one of Arkansas's unimposing role players. He fills space in the middle, and unlike teammate Hunter Mickelson, he has more of a feel for how other SEC post players operate. Sanchez's experience gives him a place on the floor even though his athleticism does not turn heads. Sanchez scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting against Mississippi State.
Forward – Hunter Mickelson – Freshman, 6-10, 234; 2011-12: 4.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg
Mickelson scored 11 points in UA's win over Michigan on Jan. 21. He's very much a work in progress, so it's not as easy – or as justifiable – to make overly definitive or sweeping pronouncements about his skill set. He will be operating at a disadvantage against Vanderbilt's array of pivot players, but he is plenty capable of giving the Hogs a strong dose of production every now and then.
Guard – Julysses Nobles – Junior, 6-1, 193; 2011-12: 8.6 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.4 apg
Nobles's numbers look rather pedestrian, but he erupted for 24 points against Mississippi State on 7-of-11 shooting, 4-for-7 from three-point range. Nobles is a player whose production totals and shot attempts vary widely from game to game, making him an erratic and somewhat unpredictable defensive assignment for the Dores. He would certainly fit the profile of a player whose shooting hand needs to be closed down early, so that he never gets into a rhythm. However, if he never does establish a groove, he can be contained for the duration of a game.
Guard – Rickey Scott – Sophomore, 6-3, 195; 2011-12: 9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.6 apg
Scott shot the ball 15 times in Arkansas's most recent game against Alabama, but he's attempted at least 10 shots in only two of the Razorbacks' last nine games. Scott certainly rates as another distinctly enigmatic performer on the UA roster, a player who does not manifest the same traits from game to game. In many ways, then, Scott is the prototypical 2012 Razorback, given that this team is completely different depending on where it plays: Fayetteville or places not named Fayetteville.
Guard – Mardracus Wade – Sophomore, 6-2, 178; 2011-12: 10.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg
Wade, contrary to Scott and many of the Razorbacks, is a consistent player. He scored 12 points against Mississippi State – that contest in which Arkansas profoundly shattered its statistical averages at the offensive end of the floor – but he's scored in double figures in eight of the Hogs' last 10 games while posting at least 12 points in four of his last five contests. Wake becomes a player with tendencies that the Vanderbilt coaching staff can focus on.
In Arkansas's most recent game, Anderson went with an eight-man rotation in which he used guards B.J. Young and Rashad Madden plus forward Devonta Abron. Young is by far the Hogs' most potent scorer off the bench. He went for 24 points (as did Nobles) against Mississippi State, and what jumps off the printed page about UA's sixth man is that he has attempted at least 10 shots in each of his last five games, scoring in double figures each time. Young is hardly an efficient player; he scores by volume, not quality of shot. He's like Kobe Bryant on the Laker superstar's worst nights: scoring in double figures only because he takes a number of shots that's even higher than his point total. Madden and Abron are grinders whom Anderson needs for defense and energy.
Keys to the Game
1) Ballstrong, ballstrong, ballstrong. If Vanderbilt – particularly Brad Tinsley – holds onto the rock and makes sound decisions with the ball, it will win. Avoiding turnovers – and the subsequent feeding of Arkansas's transition game – is the most direct path to a VU victory on Tuesday. Intelligent offense will keep the Bud Walton crowd muted more than anything else, so it becomes the Dores' foremost priority.
2) Tempo, tempo, tempo. Linked to the "low turnover project" is the similar goal of dictating the game's pace and making unrushed decisions at the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt has to play a panic-free game on its own terms instead of allowing Anderson's template to emerge in full color. It is easier to slow a game down than speed it up, but it is harder to establish a given pace on the road than at home. If Vanderbilt does slow this game down, it will have done something significant… enough to put itself in position to win.
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