Turning the Tide
Mike Anderson has been through what Anthony Grant is in the middle of.
Arkansas’ coach suspended five players, including star guard Stefhon Hannah, during his second season at Missouri in 2008.
The Tigers struggled to a 16-16 finish and missed the postseason. The next year, without off-court drama, Missouri won 31 games and made the Elite Eight.
Grant has suspended four Alabama starters in the last two weeks and announced Tuesday that one of them, forward Tony Mitchell, won’t return this season. The Crimson Tide (17-9, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) are tied for fourth in the SEC, but face an uphill battle to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Crimson Tide’s off-court issues and on-court struggles have derailed a season that started with Alabama’s first consensus preseason top-20 ranking since the 2006-07 season.
“Well I admire Grant because I think you’ve got to make a statement,” Anderson said. “This is not just for right now. This is about your program. What your program’s going to be about. Because he’s got some talented young players … So you’ve got to set a precedent about your program and what it’s going to be about.
“When I made the decision to do what I did at Missouri, I thought it was a turning point. Because then everything else kind of seemed to take it up to the next level.”
Today, the shorthanded Crimson Tide, without Mitchell and suspended All-SEC forward JaMychal Green, will face a Razorbacks team that has played the last three games with just eight healthy scholarship players.
“We are hanging in there,” Arkansas freshman guard BJ Young said. “We just know it’s a long season. It’s up and down during the season and we are just trying to stick together … I’m not drained until the season is over. If I have to get tired, then I have to get tired.”
The Hogs will try to rebound after losing two consecutive games and four of five, including a 98-68 blowout against then-No. 14 Florida on Saturday, Arkansas’ first loss in 18 games at Bud Walton Arena this season.
“That’s a shock to our guys,” Anderson said. “For the most part, we responded well … It’s going to be a season where you’re going to have some peaks and you’re going to have some valleys. The true character of a team is how you respond when you have some of those valleys.”
Sophomore walk-ons Kikko Haydar and Brandon Mitchell might play more as the Razorbacks enter a stretch of three games in six days, starting today, Anderson said.
“We’ve got to trust our bench … give these guys some breathers,” Anderson said.
Grant has had to reshuffle his frontcourt without Mitchell and Green. He has the luxury of starting 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore Moussa Gueye and bringing 7-foot-1,275-pound sophomore Carl Engstrom off the bench.
Gueye had six blocks in 16 minutes on Saturday against Alabama, while Engstrom chipped in seven points and seven rebounds.
“These guys are going to be very hungry trying to come in here and get a win,” sophomore guard Mardracus Wade said. “It’s going to give them another edge … We’ve just got to do what we do best and try to get up and down and try to press these guys and turn them over.”
With the twin towers playing key minutes for Alabama, the Hogs will try to push the pace and improve an offense that has averaged just 65.2 points the last five games, much less than the 74.6 points Arkansas averaged prior to the stretch.
“We hope that can play to our advantage,” Anderson said. “They’ve got size. Obviously if we just stay and play halfcourt that matches up with them. We’ve got to turn the game to the tempo we want to play.”
Pushing the tempo could also help more Razorbacks get involved offensively. Young scored a career-high 31 points against Florida, but his teammates struggled to score and shot just 29 percent from the field.
“You’ve got to put the ball in the hole,” Anderson said. “We’ve had some period where we haven’t. We’ve got to have other guys score. Just not BJ score. We’ve got to have some productivity from some other guys.”
With a win, Arkansas can move within a game or tie for fourth place in the SEC standings, staying in contention for the first-round bye in the SEC Tournament awarded to the top four teams in the conference.
“That’s the goal right now,” Anderson said. “Four games left. It’s one game at a time. There’s still a lot out there for the Razorbacks. They understand that. The thing we can control is our next game and our next practice.”