"I've been there I know the way,
You can't get there from here"
REM - "You Can't Get There From Here"
"Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out."
VACLAV HAVEL, Disturbing the Peace
As i head to the game tonight there is the smell of fireplaces burning dry logs. The air is sharp and clean and seems to be a deep navy blue. Multi-colored lights are blinking here and there and people are outside their houses, shooting baskets or just hanging out in loose circles.
It takes me back to holidays as a kid. There is wine on my mothers breath and the house is full and noisy and busy. My father has a glass of iced scotch and he allows me to sit with the grown ups for a few minutes. I get to sip his drink and it burns and seems to have fumes. There is music and it is always Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra or Louis Armstrong, music that has context and place. My hands are cold from dribbling the basketball in the dark outside after dinner and I'm waiting for someone to serve some dessert. There are glasses and chairs and voices and a half dozen conversations going on at once. I understand all of the words but nothing they say really makes sense. People burst into laughter about things that I am quite certain are not funny.
When I was a kid I had pretty concrete ideas about Arkansas Basketball. These were the Sutton years and there was a certain sameness to the way Eddie put together a team. Only a couple people got to shoot and everyone else's job was to do the fundamentals - pass, screen, rebound, and most of all, play defense.
The quality of his teams varied a bit depending on how reliable his scorers were but the teams were always at least good because their defense was the same. It was the same and it was simple. Man to man, every guy takes somebody and shuts him down. Man to man, in my child's mind, was the only REAL defense. Anything else was for people that didn't want to work hard or take responsibility. TEXAS played a matchup zone and THAT was all you really needed to know about that. Zones were for commies and playground prima donnas. If you couldn't play man and pull your weight you just didn't play.
When the Nolan years rolled around I learned that it wasn't actually the defense that mattered so much as how you played it. Defense had to be intense and intimidating. Every pass and shot and dribble had to be challenged. Defense had to say "this far and no farther". People needed to be SCARED to play you. They needed to DREAD playing you.
That's why Arkansas basketball sustained excellence for so long. The formula was simple. If you play spectacular defense then you will almost never lose at home. You just won't. And if you don't lose at home then AT WORST you will go about 20-10 and finish 3rd or 4th overall in conference and you will make the tourney. Then every once in a while the state will produce a superstar or we will pull a recruiting coup and the team will elevate to an elite level.
Those were the possibilities for an Arkansas basketball team - a pretty good team that makes the tourney or a fantastic team that threatens the Final Four. No other options existed.
I'm not sure when this completely ended, probably after Joe Johnson left. We lost our commitment to defense and we lost our dominance at home. It all imploded from there.
The 2009 Hogs have been an awful defensive team. In some ways this is expected. With so many new players trying to learn the speed and tenacity of the college game there are going to be some rough patches. But potentially this is a good defensive team. There is good size on the inside and at the 3. Nobles has all the attributes of a good defender. Rotnei is much improved.
But this is NOT a good defensive team. They play a sagging man or a weak zone. Sometimes they throw half hearted traps out of the zone and occasionally they run a 2 man up press that doesn't trap and ALWAYS gives up the sideline. It is maddening to watch.
I think the idea is that these guys are so young that they can't play all out defense yet. That would be too risky and Pelphrey is trying to give us the best chance to win. But half hearted defense bleeds over into the rest of the game. It emboldens the other team to do whatever they want, to attack the glass and to snap crosscourt passes without fear of interception. By designing a strategy meant to WIN NOW Pelphrey is actually ensuring LOSSES TODAY AND TOMORROW because the team isn't growing. They are becoming a team of victims. They are passive and scared.
Defense will be the key to this version of the Razorbacks just like it is the key to every version of the razorbacks.
The crowd is small tonight, probably 7000. This is understandable - the team is bad, it's a holiday, high school playoffs are going on - but it is disappointing just the same. Consistently good crowds could raise this team up. We could teach them which possessions were MUST STOPS. We could wildly cheer unselfish play. We could positively reinforce whenever they played winning college basketball the way we believe it should be played. This sounds stupid but it is true. Much of the consistency of old was due to crowd consistency -the fans supplying a steady level of energy and desire. This matters. It just does.
ETSU looks a bit like a juco team. Everyone is 6'3 - 6'6". Long and lean. They look older than us, more seasoned. 2 of their guys have knee socks - WOW!!
The band is playing "The Final Countdown" by Europe. I think this was voted the #1 bad heavy metal song of all time on MTV. I'm just saying.
Nobles has a sound looking jumper. I'm not sure why he struggles so much shooting the ball.
Hey its a Murray Bartow sighting. I didn't realize he was their coach. This should be interesting. For the 2nd straight game Pel is matched up with a seasoned coach who may have fallen from their peak job, but who definitely has had some big time success. Murray Bartow comes from a hoops family. He knows winning basketball. He just does.
Stef and Rotnei both make their last jumpers during warmyps. Good omen?
As they announce the starting lineups I am thinking that Farmer is the key to this team. He is the wildcard. He can provide a second perimeter scorer and a reliable shut down defender and rebounder. Or he can be the usual up and down juco swingman that simply can't be counted on. We will see.
Our students (there are only about 10 here) need to get some new taunts during opposing team intros. The "who's she" and "he's cute" was borrowed and stale when they started it a decade or two ago and now it is downright sad. Gracious!
TIPOFF - Lets show a little something.
Farmer with a quick steal. RC with a quick 3. The early bomb from RC is almost a given in each game.
Ouch, they get to the whole unchallenged.
Farmer with a putback and he is fouled. Nice start for him.
Powell has an early foul and he is out. Huh? they will have to explain that on to me.
We are primarily in zone - very soft at the free throw line and free throw line extended. Washington kicks crosscourt out of the post to RC for three. Need more of that.
Nice inside pass to Bryant. He looks like an anorexic version of Stringer Bell from "The Wire".
Now a Farmer baseline drive. First step a tad slow but it worked.
FIRST TIMEOUT 14-8
I'm looking at the folks sitting in the courtside seats again. Seriously, are they Make-a-Wish winners or something. If we are going to let rich people have by far the best seats in the house could we at least have some nice-looking rich people step up to the plate.
RC AGAIN. Now he finally misses. His 3 point shooting Percentage is remarkable. Hog defense is surreal. ETSU is getting to the basket at will. There are failures of ball defense, help defense, and rebounding. What else is there?
ETSU is playing a soft zone and BAM! a backdoor alley oop to Farmer. He got higher than I thought he was capable. Nice.
Stef in for Farmer - hmmm. Bryant takes a three. Not sure that is what he should be doing but at least his mechanics are good.
THERE! is a nice trap. It breaks down and they score. Pel will back out of it now. He just isn't committed to pressure defense.
Now ETSU is trapping. We don't scare them offensively.
SECOND TIMEOUT 19-14
There is an older guy in the section catty-corner from me. He has a shiny bald head and unkempt gray hair sprouting wildly from the sides. He is frozen in his seat, face pitched forward in his hands. I think he is having a stroke or maybe he just heard his favorite dog was eaten by a coyote. Being a doctor and all I should probably go check on him but, you know, there is a game and all. I'm sure he'll be fine.
We are scoring well and easily but you can't build a lead or have a big run without stops. They are man handling us on the boards. It isn't a matter of effort it is a matter of aggressiveness and strength and doing things with a purpose. We are sorely in need of those things.
Delvin Johnson looks HUGE out there. Why aren't we pounding the paint? Because they are sagging off everyone but RC. Nobles and Farner are no threat whatsoever.
We have RC out and Stef in and we press. It is a good lineup for that but where are the points coming from. A shooter, a shooter - my kingdom for a second shooter.
RC is back and we have an awful possession followed by an unmolested pull up 3 from the wing. Then a silly turnover and the same guy bombs another.
Stef misses badly on a three and they drain another. Timeout Hogs.
FOUR! straight unguarded 3s. Our 3 point defense is the worst I have ever seen. We close out slowly and don't challenge. We are late on rotations and passive when we arrive.
We finally switch to man to no avail. They get to the rim.
Nobles turnover and ETSU is on something like a 14-1 run.
THIRD TIMEOUT - 23-30 GOOD GOD!!
ETSU gets 3 tries at a lay up. Washington breaks the run with a 15 footer. Why is he way out there?
Nice inside passing but Bryant mishandles. Even our good stuff goes wrong. Washington takes ANOTHER 15 footer and misses. They will let him do that all day.
We are down a dozen and finally Stef goes to the hole and gets fouled. Of course he only hits 1-2.
LAST TIMEOUT 29-39
There is a child next to me, a young girl of about 8. She tells her father she wants to scream so high that only dogs can hear it. And she commences to give it a very good try. I think my ears are bleeding.
We need a little run. If we lose this game we might as well pack up for the season. It is THAT important.
Stef makes a pair. Cox is in. Why? (Outside of his general cuteness that is.)
Good D from Stef. RC misses a 3. That was huge. Every time this team absolutely needs a play they don't get it. Mostly it is execution but some, like RC's shot, is just bad luck.
MW with a inexplicable turnover. Now he gets a 3 second call. He has regressed as far as the little things go. Every time he touches the ball there is a 50/50 chance something terrible will happen.
Its a 14 point game a Wash airballs from 4 feet. He is totally gassed.
Good effort from MW but he saves the ball on the opponents end and they get wide open 3.
#43 checks in for ETSU. He looks like Bowser from Sha-Na-Na.
HALFTIME - 32-48
No that isn't a misprint. Over the last 8 minutes of the first half East freaking Tennessee State outscored us 34-10. OMG. I would be ROFL if it wasn't so sad.
Is this the nadir of Hog hoops. I hope so. I really do because I am literally queasy watching this team. Its like watching an early '80's Rice squad - one guy that puts up 40 and they still lose every game by double digits.
I am at this game alone. Stepson is with his Dad. Stepdaughter watching her boyfriend play for the Charleston juggernaut. Wife attending a wedding then going home exhausted to puke and pray for sleep and to curse my existence for knocking her up.
In years past I would go smoke during halftime. The unwashed masses of the addicted would huddle outside in the cold and go over the first half. It was usually a 2 cigarette break but if I really put my mind to it I could inhale 3.
I haven't gone out there in a couple years because I was an on and off non-smoker. But today I must smoke.
But my people are GONE! At first I think they all must have died from tobacco related diseases and there was no new generation of fans coming in to replace them. But no, it was worse. They just weren't letting us go out and come back in anymore. Alas, another treasured ritual of youth evaporates.
Question: Are Morgan State and ETSU better coached than Arkansas? Both teams have very solid and experienced guys at the helm. Their teams are smallish, athletic, and they shoot well but I think it would be very difficult to argue that they have more talent than Arkansas. The Hogs have the best shooter on the floor and the 2 best big men. Farmer and Nobles would start for either of those teams.
So if that is the case then something else is making the difference. ETSU plays with more aggression and more purpose than we do. They have a scheme that emphasizes strengths and minimizes weaknesses. I'm sure that our schemes are meant to cover up holes in our squad but I am not sure at all that we take advantage of our assets.
More importantly - while I don't question our effort at all - I absolutely question our aggressiveness at all facets of the game. Our defense is passive which bleeds into passive rebounding which bleeds into stagnant offense.
I am not calling for Pelphrey's head. He is our guy and I realize he knows exactly what the problems are and he is trying hard to fix them. The question is can he do it? Is he capable? Well coached teams, even talentless ones, rarely play defense like this team does. They just don't.
The crowd is dead. The players look whipped, maybe lost.
RC pulls a quick 3 and it rims out. Powell gets stripped - he has been nonexistent!
RC hits and Mike finally posts down low and scores. That should be ALL DAY.
Farmer makes a tough right handed drive. He is playing pretty well but has HUGE lapses of concentration.
The crowd is up now, begging for a run. The team is on its toes now, challenging.
Farmer gets beat for a backdoor layup. Geez that hurts.
MW again - keep feeding it.
Farmer again lapses on defense but they don't make us pay. On the other end he pulls up for a pretty 15 footer. Now an RC 3 and the place explodes. It's a 9 point game. ETSU timeout.
RC has 17. We need to push push push on both ends.
Criminy - open 3. Drained. No excuse.
FIRST TIMEOUT 46-58 ETSU LEADS
Momentum is gone, just like that. Stef way short on a 3. Nobles airballs a 3 - why is he such a crummy shooter? Stef misses again but this time Farmer picks it up.
Unforced turnover by us. We had our chances. Another sloppy turnover and a dunk on the other end. Its back to 13. RC misses a 3. This might be over.
SECOND TIMEOUT 51-64 ETSU.
I took a sip of my coke during the timeout and for some reason when a closed my mouth a short stream of soda sprayed out between my lips and plunked the guy in front of me on the back. I have been drinking various liquids for pert near my whole life and I don't think I have ever experienced this sort of mishap.
The victim of my squirtage doesn't notice and I act casual. Nothing going on here.
Fans are whining about calls because ETSU is beating us up in the paint. We need to stand up and fight back.
Farmer grabs a defensive rebound then drops it. ETSU grabs it and converts for a 3 point play. Lordy be.
Nice push to MW for a hoop and harm. Why are we not pushing and hitting RC as a trailer?
We press and give up a layup. We won't see any more of that for awhile.
MW makes a post move and gets fouled. He goes down in a heap and the ref call it flagrant. I don't think he realizes Mike is just goofy and he tends to go down like that.
MW makes 1-2 and Stef hits a 3.
Stef with an insane drive that goes.
Powell finally scores.
Still pressing but it is SO SOFT. The just dribble casually up the sideline.
Stef forces a turnover. He has had a solid few minutes.
RC 3!!! He is a serious weapon.
Charge on ETSU
THIRD TIMEOUT 65-71
The game is right there to be taken. The crowd is raucous again. they are throwing and shooting t-shirts from that cannon and I think my section might stampede in hopes of getting one. What if its the wrong size?
This last few minutes will be a matter of focused effort and energy. The crowd can help with that.
MW blows a layup. He gives his all but PLEASE.
Good defense and their PG throws up a rainbow prayer as the shotclock expires and it drops. Oh My.
Stef gets fouled and hits 1-2. RC with good defense and hustle.
Get it inside! GET THE BALL INSIDE!!!!
RC misses. We needed that. Time is getting short.
MW called for an illegal screen. That is just weak officiating.
4 Fouls on Farmer and we are walking the ball up, using the whole shot clock.
Another 3 from RC but then Nobles makes a silly turnover. Chances, chances, chances
Everyone but RC is afraid to shoot. Grand.
LAST TIMEOUT 69-79
Hey a stat girl sighting. I didn't think she was here. I feel like stat girl and I have drifted apart over the last year. What with me getting married and having never actually met her and all.
Farmer fouls out. MW makes 1-2 FTs. Our press is comical. No backside help on defense. None. Zero. Down 11. My stepdaughter would say "Really? Really?"
We are giving up nearly 100 points a game to low-major teams and we are doing it while we play pretty much slow down ball. What percentage of their possessions do our opponents score on. I need to see that stat.
RC has 32. The guy in front of me has a huge stain on his shirt.
FINAL SCORE 85-94 ETSU WINS
Ugh. Sometimes there just isn't much to say. I can still see what this team should be but unless they get rid of their fear of losing, losing will be all they ever know. Defense, defense, defense. I hate to keep harping on it but there really is no valid reason for the level of incompetence we have shown.. Pel knows its importance. Rob Evans certainly knows how to coach it. Our players are physically capable of it.
I don't know. I just don't know.
Until next time
"I've been there I know the way,