Basketball Scouting Report: Arkansas
The job Kevin Stallings is doing this season in Nashville is something to behold. It's weird to say this, but in much the same way that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich – a four-time NBA champion – said that a regular-season win over the Washington Wizards this past Wednesday represented one of the finest wins he's ever been a part of, it is also true that Stallings – despite a Sweet 16 and an SEC Tournament championship on his resume – is delivering some of the best work of his career in 2014. This is true even though VU has nothing more than a fractional chance of getting an at-large berth for the NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt would have to beat Florida and lose just two games (to decent teams, not Auburn or South Carolina) between now and the SEC Tournament championship game in order to be a serious candidate for an at-large berth on Selection Sunday. Given the Dores' utter lack of reserves, it's hard to see that happening. Yet, the mere possibility that Vanderbilt could do something special is a testament to what Stallings has already achieved.
It is quite possible that on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 23, Vanderbilt could face the season's four-game gauntlet of Florida, Tennessee (away), LSU, and Ole Miss (away) with a 17-9 overall record, 9-5 in the SEC. If VU does reach those markers in terms of overall and conference records, winning three of those four games, followed by two wins in the SEC Tournament, would put Vanderbilt in the conversation on Selection Sunday – maybe not enough to get in, but certainly in Joe Lunardi's "last four out" or "next four out" categories. The bubble, in case you haven't noticed, is absolutely wretched this season, so while Vanderbilt's NCAA odds are still conspicuously low, the Dores – in the next two weeks – do at least have a chance to… well… give themselves a chance when the Gators come to Memorial Gym on Feb. 25.
Again, the simple reality that this conversation is even being brought up is testament enough to Stallings's body of work this season. Vanderbilt needed every last ounce of offensive efficiency and rim-denial defense to offset Tennessee's expected edge on the offensive glass this past Wednesday. Having absorbed Tennessee's power, Vanderbilt now faces an entirely different kind of opponent, an Arkansas side that tries to win with speed and helter-skelter scrambling. If the Commodores' legs can hold up on Saturday, this push to 17-9 (9-5) can remain alive, and this team can – at the very least – give itself a shot to make a run at the Dance in late February and early March.
What's there to say about Arkansas at this point? Nothing new, really.
Mike Anderson, a Nolan Richardson protégé, left a good situation at Missouri – where he did quite well, one should add – to "come home" and make Razorback basketball what it once was in the 1990s. I can't speak for other observers, but I personally felt Anderson was going to succeed in Fayetteville. His body of work at UAB and Mizzou suggested he was going to bring 40 Minutes Of Hell to life once again, making Arkansas a player on the national scene.
To my great surprise, it just hasn't happened.
Arkansas's utter failure under Anderson – not to mention its stagnation over the past 15 years – represents one of college basketball's most confounding stories in the new century. This isn't just the program Nolan Richardson made great, you know. Before the Razorbacks joined the SEC and engaged Kentucky in many classic battles, they were part of the Southwest Conference. Eddie Sutton – one of college basketball's great coaches – took the Hogs to the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis, and he engaged Guy Lewis – another one of the sport's icons – in many epic duels when Arkansas played Houston in the early 1980s. Those Arkansas-Houston games were appointment television, arguably the apex of the SWC's existence as a basketball conference. Arkansas owns a substantial and rich basketball heritage. Anderson seemed on so many levels to be the right man at the right time, a person who wanted that job more than anything else in the world. Yet, he and his program are stuck in mud, representing a rare occasion when a Pig is not at home and comfortable in the thick, nutrient-rich substance.
You know the deal with Arkansas basketball: This program – the 2013-2014 team is no exception – has not had enough polished players whose offensive skill sets can hold up in any foreign location. The Hogs operate in a distinct comfort zone at home, but their style of play simply hasn't been able to be sustained on the road. As soon as this team crosses its own state line, its offense bogs down – that seems like a harsh overgeneralization, but it's uncomfortably accurate as a succinct explanation for why this program is falling short under Anderson.
Vanderbilt needs to continue to depend on its defense to ensure that the Hogs don't have a breakout performance on the road.
Forward – Coty Clarke – Senior, 6-7, 232; 2013-14: 8.5 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game, 2.2 assists per game, 1.4 steals per game
Clarke, though a forward who helps out on the boards, is very nearly this team's leading assist man. No player on the roster averages more than 2.4 dimes per game. This tells you how consistently the Hogs fail to knock down shots on the perimeter and fail to finish plays near the tin.
Forward – Bobby Portis – Freshman, 6-10, 242; 2013-14: 13.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.4 assists per game, 1 steal per game, 1.5 blocked shots per game
Here's the player Vanderbilt has to contain on Saturday. Portis was a one-man team for Arkansas on Wednesday against Alabama, to an extent rarely seen in college basketball this season.
Just how fully did Portis carry Arkansas across the finish line in a narrow win over the Crimson Tide? The freshman hit 14-of-17 field goals while his teammates went 8-for-40. Portis split his two three-point tries while his teammates went 0-for-11 behind the arc. Portis hit all six of his free throws. He was his team's leading rebounder (9 boards). He blocked 6 shots; no other teammate blocked more than a single shot. Portis also didn't commit a turnover.
Guard – Kikko Haydar – Senior, 5-10, 170; 2013-14: 3.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg
Haydar is a placeholder starter who will give way to either Mardracus Wade or Michael Qualls. Wade played 24 minutes in a win over Alabama this past Wednesday. Qualls had been starting for this team, but he was suspended for the Hogs' game at LSU this past Saturday and received just 14 minutes in a reserve role against Alabama. Qualls is a somewhat productive player. He averages 11.2 points, 4.7 boards, and 2.4 assists per game. Anderson needs his mind to be right; if Qualls shapes up, Arkansas can at least hold onto an NIT berth instead of allowing its season to completely deteriorate.
Guard – Fred Gulley III – Sophomore, 6-2, 182; 2013-14: 4.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.9 apg
This is a starting guard for Arkansas basketball. Yes, with THAT stat line. It's a commentary unto itself. Somewhere, Al Dillard weeps in a corner. He might not have played tons of minutes, but he stuffed the stat sheet in the days when the Razorbacks mattered.
Guard – Rashad Madden – Junior, 6-5, 180; 2013-14: 12.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Madden stands out from the crowd in that he can actually shoot threes at a high level, unlike his backcourt teammates. Yet, Madden doesn't really look for his shot all that often. He's attempted 80 threes in 22 games, an average of under four per game. There's really no high-volume shooter on this team who consistently hits from long distance. Madden might need to trust his skill set a little more if this team is to grow in the month of February. At the very least, someone needs to play at a much higher level if this program is to ever break out of its road-game shell.
In addition to the reserves mentioned above (Wade and Qualls), Anderson also uses forwards Alandise Harris and Jacorey Williams plus guard Anthlon Bell and center Moses Kingsley. Harris averages 9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Bell averages 6.2 points per game. Kingsley contributes 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Possessions and poise. Vanderbilt poured out a lot of energy in the process of fending off Tennessee. Arkansas' ineptitude on the road is well documented, but Vanderbilt's tank could become empty in this game if the Dores don't slow this game down, using some zone in the first half to save their legs for the second half. Vanderbilt needs to be mindful of the importance of using at least 20 to 25 seconds on most possessions, going for the easy basket when it has the chance but generally forcing Arkansas to defend for an extended period of time. Reducing the number of possessions in this game will enable VU's shorthanded roster to remain fresh enough to compete over the course of 40 minutes. A high-possession game would almost certainly give Arkansas its best chance to spoil this special run by the Commodores. Vanderbilt will need to execute with under 10 seconds on the shot clock. Crisp screens and decisive movements (either cuts or drives) have to be part of Stallings's pregame talk to his team.
2) Make Portis transport the ball to teammates. When one player fully excels and his teammates just as clearly struggle, you can't let that one player beat you. Double-teaming Portis (when the opportunity presents itself) and forcing non-Madden shooters to hit shots must be Vanderbilt's basic approach on defense.
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