I would rather win ugly than lose pretty any day, and it doesn't get much uglier than that game last night. In some ways, it was similar to the Tennessee game, in that we got off to a good start in the first half but spent the rest of the game desperately trying to cling to our lead.
Nick Jacobs was a beast in the first half. His work on the offensive end was a big reason why we were able to build an 11 point lead. His ineffectiveness on defense, lack of rebounding, and turnovers were also a big reason why we lost that lead in the second half. I really wish we had just one more big man to push him for playing time. There was one particular turnover in the second half that really bothered me, he had his man posted up on the low block, and attempted to catch the entry pass with one hand, and of course lost it. There is no excuse for that, we've got to get more consistent effort out of him on both ends of the floor. He has the skills, and shows them at times, but he plays soft.
Moussa Gueye on the other hand is doing everything we could realistically expect from him at this point. Sure, he still occasionally has the bad plays where he puts the ball on the floor for no good reason or gets out of position, but he is now a legitimate presence in the paint on defense, and is at least active enough on offense to score every now and then and make the defense account for him. I was concerned about our ability to match up with Marshawn Powell in this game, but we held him to 11 points and he fouled out in the final minutes. That's a credit to Moussa's defense, and also to Coach Grant's strategy of going after him with our bigs and our stronger wings.
Arkansas came in averaging 77 points per game, but we were excellent in transition defense. Gueye altered and blocked shots near the basket, and the guards did an excellent job both of getting through screens in the man, and closing out on the perimeter in the zone. Our pressure seemed to disrupt their offense at times as well.
Arkansas fouls. A lot. They are aggressive on defense but not very fundamentally sound, which results in a lot of hacking. The officials called as much of it as they could. We were in the bonus within 10 minutes of the first half. In the first half, when Arkansas would over extend their defense we had guys cutting behind them to get to the basket. In the second half, we were less aggressive and had a hard time getting a shot off. We were not getting the benefit of as many calls because we were not being aggressive on offense.
Once again, we had an 11 point lead late in the first half, allowed the hogs to close on a 4-0 run to cut it to 7, and came out flat on offense for the second half. Arkansas slowly chipped away until the lead was gone, then we had to make the plays in the final 2 minutes or so to win the game. Trevor Releford's technical foul really hurt, and after watching the replay, I'm not sure it was warranted. There was very little contact and it did not look like the type of situation that was going to escalate.
We turned the ball over 21 times, 7 of those being Trevor Lacey. We need to get more production out of Lacey, but he did make some clutch free throws toward the end of the game. Once again, Andrew Steele's leadership may have been the difference in the game, even though it doesn't show up in the box score. When things were looking grim in the second half, he was the calming force that kept everybody focused. I noticed him coaching the guards from the bench during free throw attempts on a few occasions in the 2nd half, and Lacey in particular seems to really listen to him.
I thought Devonta Pollard had a good game and is hopefully starting to adjust to the speed of the game. He had a few turnovers, but also made some good defensive plays and had some nice rebounds. He can get off the floor in a hurry, and he is probably our best chance of being the guy who can get us some offensive boards. Levi had another good game, I love his effort going for loose balls, and he was a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line. Cooper only played 16 minutes and did not have a very good game. Coach Grant did not play him much down the stretch. Retin Obasohan made an appearance and played well for a couple of minutes. I am not sure of the rhyme or reason for Coach Grant's decision on whether or not to play him from game to game.
On the one hand we played great defense, made 9 of our last 10 free throws, and did the things we had to do to pull out a close game in the end. As bad as Arkansas has looked at times, they are a talented team and still a top 100 RPI team. On the other hand, we seem to lack the ability to put teams away when we get the lead, and we were sloppy with the ball and very bad offensively, especially for most of the second half.
The crowd was terrible, I would guess there was only 6,000 or so there and it didn't really get loud until the very end. The student section was maybe half full. If that's the best we can do for a team that is tied with Kentucky for 3rd place in the SEC, on national television, against a team that has been a historic rival, this program will always have a glass ceiling. You guys know how I feel about the marketing, or lack thereof, of this team, so that's all I will say about that.
Looking at the big picture, it's now February, just one month removed from that glorious month that all of us College basketball fans live for. We find ourselves ranked 60th in the RPI, 13-7(5-2). Villanova has inexplicably started winning and is close to being a top 50 RPI team, and Kentucky still has a good chance to get there. The only real quality win type opponents left on our schedule are Ole Miss (assuming they don't collapse) and Florida, both on the road. While every other game on the schedule is winnable, we will inevitably have some bad nights so I don't think it's very realistic to expect us to finish 14-4. Unfortunately, due to a horrible December with losses to Mercer and Tulane, I think that is what it would take for us to reach the tournament (and even then, I think one of those wins would probably need to come over Ole Miss). However, I do think a realistic goal is to stay within the top 4 of the SEC standings, and get the double-bye in the tournament. If we only have to win 3 games in Nashville, I think we have a fighter's chance. Obviously, Florida is leaps and bounds better than everyone else in this league, but my guess is they will have secured a #1 seed by that point and will be less than enthusiastic about the SEC tournament. If somebody knocks them off, we have as good of a chance as anybody else in this league.
Up next, a trip to Memorial Gym in Nashville to play Vandy, where we have not won since the ice ages. Seriously, it was 1990. To put that into perspective, the internet was just getting started, and did not really become popular for a few years later. This Vandy is team bad, but they played Ole Miss and Kentucky to the wire. Hopefully, I will have a chance to be the first person to blog about a Tide win in Memorial gym. Tip off is at 3pm CST Saturday.