“If you want to destroy this sweater,
hold this thread as I walk away.”
Weezer - “The Sweater Song”
Slumps tend to get reduced to cliches, to their most basic level. “The Hogs are losing because their shots aren’t falling.” “They have been hurt by injuries and suspensions etc.” “They aren’t giving effort.” “They aren’t playing defense.” “Pel sucks.” All of those things may or may not be true, but as analysis they are meaningless. Those things are, for the most part, results. They are not the causes.
When looking at the cause of a failure, be it a basketball team or a Big Three auto company or the banking industry, it is dangerous to be TOO reductionist. This is an essential truth in a TEAM sport.
Basketball, like just about everything else, is a “system” for lack of a better term. It is not a series of individual events or shots. It isn’t just matchups. The way someone shoots depends on where they get the ball, what the score was, what kind of defense was being played, whether the seams of the ball were lined up nicely when the pass was received, whether the shooter’s legs feel bouncy, whether their girlfriend may or may not be cheating on them. Further, the way that shooter is shooting effects everything and everybody else. What defense do we play after a make vs. a miss. What kind of shot does the opponent get off a long rebound? Does the shooter pass up the next open look or does he jack a bad shot because he feels hot? Does a player on the end of the bench lose a girlfriend because being a baller for this team has suddenly lost its cache?
What I am saying is that these things are complicated. There are hundreds if not thousands of important variables on every team, in every game, on each possession, on each shot. And each of the variables fundamentally effect all of the others. This is, at least in part, Chaos Theory and it is the central reason team sports can be so exciting and so maddening. They cannot be accurately predicted. This is the nature of any “system”. It tends towards entropy, to disorder. The coach and the team are always trying to rein this in, to harness its power.
Let me offer a couple of examples in basketball:
The Houston Cougars of Drexler and Phi Slamma Jamma made three straight final fours and two straight finals. They were the dominant college team for 2+ years. Before and after this period they were nearly irrelevant (save the Elvin Hayes era). But I would argue that the overall talent in the program changed very little from year to year under Guy Lewis. The results, however, were completely different.
Houston teams were notorious for looking great at times but being unable to get a big stop or a crucial basket. These teams tended towards entropy, to disorder. When they needed to buckle down and focus they couldn’t. This made them vulnerable.
During the Drexler years this changed. I would argue it changed for 2 fundamental reasons, one well known and the other overlooked.
The well known change was Olajuwon showing up. From his first day he was an intimidating presence. Early on his offense was nonexistent but his defense was game changing. Hakeem instantly made that club a credible defensive team. The basket was protected and the rest were free to roam.
The less talked about change was Alvin Franklin. He was an absolute bull of a point guard with a nice jumper and with him running the show all of a sudden Houston would buckle down on big possessions on both ends. They had someone to take a clutch shot and exude calm. Think of it as the difference between a team led by Kenny Hutchinson to a team led by Corey Beck. It is hard to think of one individual skill in which Beck was a superior player but nobody who watched them play would ever take Kenny over Corey.
Alvin Franklin and Corey Beck CONTROLLED disorder. They reined everything in. Established limits. In doing that they allowed the rest of the team to run free and be loose and confident.
The other major example of controlling disorder is the NBA. The players are so good, and the teams so everchanging, that the only way to know what you are going to get every night is to reduce the game to matchups, one on one plays. It would be great to run a “system” with that level of players. To an extent Sacramento did just that during the Webber years and it was beautiful to watch. Unfortunately the system was too fragile. It broke down under pressure and with the loss of even one player of their top 8 guys. Bobby Jackson getting hurt would cripple them.
Gillespie at Kentucky does something similiar. Each season he has 2 and only 2 major offensive players, usually one inside and one outside. (This season Meeks and Patterson) The team will fight and struggle until they get comfortable with this but then they produce extremely consistent results. This was also the Eddie Sutton way. Players have to wait in the wings as role players and hope to be tapped for stardom later in their careers.
And so I come to my beloved Hogs, a team of interesting parts that seems to have lost its way. The thread has been pulled and the fabric has come apart. Weaving it together again falls on two people. Pelphrey and Fortson. Those two guys control more variables than anyone else. They can create controlled chaos. All the talk of Stef and RC and Washington and our struggles at the 4 are interesting and important but in the end irrelevant. Courtney controls the team on the floor and Pel controls it off.
Arkansas’s struggles are the direct result of having a freshman point guard that, as of yet, doesn’t understand the overall game. And just as quickly as it has gone south it can turn great again if (and when) the light goes on in Courtney’s head.
And now on to the Auburn game. Similar in many ways to Miss. State they are a perimeter team. But they lack Varnado and have been mired in a culture of losing and living and dying with jump shots. We SHOULD blow them out but my confidence is shaky.
I’m tired for this game. Very Tired. I worked all night and I am getting old. I bought an “energy drink” thinking it could pep me up. Instead I found out it tastes like a combination of liquid bubble gum and urine. I’m not a fan.
Beautiful day in NWA. Cold in the shadows and warm in the sunlight. I think that might be a metaphor for something.
The crowd isn’t great but it’s not horrible. Maybe 2/3 full. Aesthetically we don’t measure up to the OU and Texas crowds from a couple weeks ago. I think the pretty people must have dates.
Stat Girl is here and behind the scorer’s table. She looks good although I think she is wearing the same outfit as the last time I saw her - short black tunic and black slacks. I think maybe you become an official stalker when you figure out the outfit rotation of someone you’ve never met. Is their a stalker’s union or something I need to join. Maybe a group that offers my kind free legal representation when the inevitable happens. Just wondering.
Stef is wearing his headband again. He also wore it at Florida and Ole Miss. Coincidence? I think not. This is bad. Is there not a coach in charge of sartorial mistakes? Someone that looks out for jinxes? I’m available if you need me Pel.
Monk is in street clothes, no idea why. Yikes! (Although it is troubling that I feel reliant on a footbll player who has only been with the team a couple of weeks.)
Let’s play ball!
Stef nails his first jumper. Sweet. The crowd is into it. We need to pressure these guys and roll them.
Auburn has some serious shorts. Calf-length. At what point does wearing a mid length “skort” begin to hinder movement?
RC hits a deep one. This is good.
Sanchez faces up and gets fouled. His post moves are glacier-like. (That isn’t good)
Waller buries a shot from deep while leaning to his left. Ugh.
Horrible turnover on a CF pass to Stef. Bad pass from CF and bad awareness from Stef. Sometimes I question Courtney’s understanding of good passing angles.
Waller again. Might wanna get a hand up fellas.
FIRST TIMEOUT 6-11 Auburn.
We seem to be the cure for other team’s shooting woes. Our man is a bit soft and we aren’t handling screens well. We go under or switch so it is easy to get mismatches with our little guys.
Henry in. If he can play well he is the solution to many, many problems.
I’m thinking more Britt today as well. Maybe some Henry and Britt together with RC or Stef. That fixes the size and we still have some shooting. Marcus has to be willing to take a mid-range jumper though.
We ran a different set the first 3 possessions and got good looks. Lots of motion. We are back to pick and roll now. Stagnant.
Waller again. Oh my! That was against a zone and I’m not sure CF has any idea how to cover the left wing out of a zone.
Courtney gets a couple nice buckets.
SECOND TIMEOUT 12-17 Auburn
Henry got his pocket picked for a dunk and missed badly on a 3. He needs to work his way back.
Lefty hits a deep one for Auburn. We are playing soft zone WHY!
Waller another one.
Washington responds poorly to double teams.
RC hits a deep one that they call a 2. We HAVE to press and push. That is the only way to get open shots for our guards but we are sitting back on D.
Andre Clark is active. Out of position but active. He needs minutes.
Another 3 and we are down 10.
Stef comes back.
Stat Girl just walked right in front of my seat. Just a hint of a jiggle. I could have reached out and touched her or maybe thrown popcorn at her.
Stef cuts it to 5 but blows a layup.
THIRD TIMEOUT 21-26 Auburn
Jeff Lebo looks a lot like Donald Pleasance - the guy that played the psychiatrist in “Halloween”. I don’t think that is a compliment. His face is very shiny.
RC with an airball. He was wide open and missed by 2 feet. WTF?
Another 3 and it is back to 10. That was against a man defense.
Stef misses. We are missing open jumpers now and are down a dozen.
On the positive side I think the band is playing a song by Pink. So we have that going for us.
Auburn has a really tall skinny assistant or redshirt in a suit with a hanky in his pocket.
I point this out to my date but she thinks he is too old to be a player and not involved enough to be a coach. “I think he might be a semi-retarded guy that just wandered out there and is pretending to be part of the team”, she says.
I have no response to that.
Stef goes down HARD. He’ll be sore.
RC with a drive and dish to Sanchez. Michael draws the foul but he needs to explode up and finish.
We have lots of chances but nowhere to go for a bucket.
LAST TIMEOUT 27-36 Auburn
There is a women walking up the steps on the south side wearing a top that makes her look like Santa and if I am not mistaken she has on black stockings and little else. I realize I’m tired but I think I hired her for a bachelor party once.
CF is taking WAY too long before he shoots.
Now Stef with an airball. “Goodness Gracious” my mother says. Can’t disagree with that.
Pressed a bit there and fell back in a zone but CF makes another silly pass in transition.
HALFTIME 31-38 Auburn
Honestly it should be worse. Aubbie won’t shoot like that in the second half but if we don’t create turnovers we can’t score consistently and we won’t create turnovers with this defensive game plan.
There is clearly a good book on how to play this Hog team now and we have to figure out how to make that work for us. Everyone will bang Washington and double him when he gets it in the post. They will sink way, way off Courtney and dare him to shoot (while getting an extra defender in the paint to help with double teams). When CF takes up the slack and tries to penetrate they will let him get deep and take their chances with him making those dipsy-do shots. (It appears that he won’t get many calls on those anymore. That is probably as it should be because he is creating the contact by jumping in.)
My date was craving a hamburger at halftime. I argued that concession stand burgers are pretty much a vector for food-borne illness. She persisted and WOW. I just ate a really tasty burger. Who knew?
The dance squad is very sparkly in their outfits at halftime. I think their dance is a tribute to “working women”. I’m not sure how much of a “tribute” it is since they have on big eyeglasses to show they are smart and are spinning around and thrusting in dedazzled dresses that stop short of their thighs.
Hey I am all in favor of some good objectification of women but I just think that when people talk about “working women” they don’t really mean Hooters waitresses.
Speaking of objectifying women - a new one caught my eye. She is red-headed and a bit athletic. She seems to be like some kind of boss to the ushers, or maybe a coordinator. she is in all black and has a walkie-talkie on her hip. The whole effect is very much one of authority, like a female cop. (Is that another stripper fantasy?) I want her to scold me. Let’s hear it for the ginger people.
Come the eff on boys. This is silly.
Courtney is just off. He can’t shoot and he is making bad passes. I think he needs to sit for a bit.
Stef is missing catch and shoots now. Pelphry is freaking out.
RC has his leg collapse on a 3 and MW gets his shot blocked like 3 times. Auburn is winning in the paint. Ugh.
We look awful in half court, partly a function of our roster. I hate our tempo. It is defeatist.
Auburn has gone cold but we can’t score. Sanchez is active. He could be a good role player on a good team. But on a borderline team like this he is just another position where we don’t get enough production.
FIRST TIMEOUT 36-42
Should be worse. CF missed a toss. Courtney throws a full court pass to SANCHEZ. He needs to know better.
And we are back down 10.
There is an avenue for a win here because I don’t think Auburn will score a ton but we are impotent.
A minute ago I was excited because we got the ball to Sanchez in the middle. Things have gotten exactly that bad.
Sanchez gets rejected and again collects the honorary Charles Thomas/Jonathon Modica award for getting faced. If he keeps this up we may rename the award for him some time in his career.
Stef finds the range. He is playing OK. He has missed quite a few but they were all wide open.
We can’t get a stop.
SECOND TIMEOUT 34-42
We are all waiting. Just waiting for a run. A couple of stops and a couple of shots is all it will take but I just am not seeing it.
Stef again and we are down 5. We get a stop but give up the offensive rebound. Killer.
No Henry in second half so far. Hurt?
RC can’t hit. When CF drives they don’t pick him up until he gets past the 3-point line.
Sanchez a little lefty.
Ugh. And 1 for Aubbie. They are making the plays.
MW with a bad shot. Stef with a travel. We have opportunities.
We have had 3 chances on O down 7 but have barely even gotten a shot.
THIRD TIMEOUT 49-56
(I wrote a bunch of stuff here but it got kind of mean and frankly profane and isn’t really fit for public consumption. Suffice to say we scored 2 points the rest of the way and went the last 6 minutes scoreless. We missed good shots and bad shots, made bad turnovers and were forced into a couple. Auburn made some big plays burt also just let us collapse.)
FINAL SCORE 51-73
All in all that was the worst performance I have ever seen at home. There have been teams that played worse (specifically maybe when Georgia came in Stan’s first year and they were up by 30 early in the second half) but never a team that I thought was pretty decent and should win easily that just didn’t show.
Like I was saying in the beginning, systems are fragile things. They exist in delicate balance sometimes. The fabric of this team has clearly unraveled.
The good thing is that the solution is relatively simple. Courtney Fortson has to be the best and most in control player on the team and the rest of the guys need to feed off it. The bad thing is that CF is a freshman and I’m not sure he knows how to do this yet.
Until next time.