Don't Let the .500 Record Fool You
While Arkansas has won as many games as they've lost this season, they are a better team than their record would indicate. The Razorbacks were without their best player, sophomore guard Courtney Forston, for the first half of their season. With the diminutive guard back on the floor, the Razorbacks are a much better team. Fortson is good for 19.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.4 boards a game. Basically, he's John Pelphrey's guy. This is a different team with Fortson on the floor. Courtney's ability, combined with Vanderbilt's historical difficulty at defending under-sized, slashing guards, probably makes him the most important player on the floor.
The Rest of the 'Backs
The Razorbacks get scoring help from the rest of their starters. It's fair to say that Arkansas is a team that relies heavily on their guards. 6'0 sophomore guard Rotnei Clarke is averaging 15.9 points a game in just over 34 minutes of play. He's the team's best three point shooter, hitting 44.8% of shots his attempts, and is someone the Commodores can't fall asleep on. Marshawn Powell, a 6'7 freshman, has also been an impact player, averaging 15.1 points and 6.6 boards a game. Junior guard Marcus Britt has started 12 of 13 games, but only ends up playing 20 minutes a game, while adding 4 points, close to 3 boards, and 2 assists.
Arkansas' 5th starter is currently a mystery. At the time of this writing, the Game Notes provided by either school have not yet been posted. Senior big-man Michael Washington did not play against LSU on Wednesday after spraining his ankle the day before. Washington averages 12.9 points and 5.7 rebounds a game in just under 25 minutes of play. More importantly though, Arkansas is 0-3 when Washington is not in the line-up. Whether Washington is a go will seriously affect the team Pelphrey is able to put on the floor. With Washington unavailable, junior Delvon Johnson got the start against LSU, and is likely to get the start Saturday as well. Johnson, 6'9, played 27 minutes at LSU, but on the season is averaging just 2.8 points and 2.4 boards in 13.3 minutes a game.
Off the bench, the Razorbacks are getting contributions from senior guard Stefan Welch, freshman forward Glenn Bryant, and junior swingman Jemal Farmer. On the year, these 3 are averaging 14.1 points, and netted Arkansas' only 12 bench points against LSU.
What Happened Against LSU?
Despite giving Vanderbilt fits at home, it's safe to say that LSU is the worst team in the conference. As such, them beating Arkansas Wednesday was a big surprise. As I mentioned above, Michael Washington did not play, which seriously impacted Arkansas' offense. Still, LSU was able to give the Razorback more than they could handle in Baton Rogue. The Tigers out-rebounded the Razorbacks 35-31, and forced 21 turnovers compared to committing 16. LSU attempted 10 more free throws, and hit 7 more fts. Heading into Wednesday, opponents were out-rebounding the Razorbacks by an average of 3.6 boards a game. On the other hand, Arkansas was attempting 4.4 more free throws a game, and making 3.5 more attempts than their opponents. Vanderbilt has certainly taken advantage of the charity stripe this season, and will have to do the same thing tomorrow if they are going to earn their 11th conference win.
Arkansas is Desperate...and Therefore Dangerous
At 14-14 overall and 7-6 in a weak SEC West, Arkansas is by no means a bubble team. Still, they are only 1 game back of Mississippi State for tops in the West. They've got a shot to over-take the Bulldogs and thereby stay out of Kentucky's half of the draw, but the only way they can do so is if they win out. With a player as explosive as Fortson, Arkansas is a team that can beat any team in the conference on any given night. I would argue (admittedly from an uninformed vantage point) that Arkansas is actually a better (or at least more talented) team than South Carolina, who handed UK their only loss of the season. The Razorbacks are not to be taken lightly, and if healthy, are a team that could surprise a lot of people some SEC Tournament time.
What Vanderbilt Has to Do to Win
Vanderbilt is an impressive 4-2 on the road this season, including 3-0 in SEC West gyms. The question is why? In their 4 road wins, the Commodores have attempted 42 more free throws than their opponents, made 35 more free throws, and had a +21 rebounding advantage. The made free throws number is that much more impressive when you consider Vanderbilt's total margin of victory in these 4 games was just 30 points. Clearly, Vanderbilt's ability to get to the line, and capitalize once they are there, has clearly been the difference between winning and losing.
Compare these numbers to what happened in Vanderbilt's 2 road losses. At Kentucky and Georgia, Vanderbilt attempted 13 fewer free throws, made 6 fewer free throws, and were out-rebounded by a whopping 34. In both losses, their opponents shot over 46% from downtown (Kentucky was a mind-blowing 52%). For their part, Vanderbilt was just 2-17 from beyond the arc in the second half of these two losses, certainly not a recipe for success.
With these numbers in mind, here are some goals for the Commodores:
- Control the Boards: Arkansas has not been a good rebounding team all season. In SEC play, they've been out-rebounded, on average, by 3.6 boards a game. The Razorbacks weren't a great rebounding team without Washington, but if the senior doesn't play there is truly no excuse for Vanderbilt not dominating the glass.
- Getting to the free throw line: Vanderbilt's success this season is due in large part to their free throw shooting. It's a pretty obvious point, but something to watch for nonetheless.
- Scoring in the Paint: If Washington doesn't play, this is a game where A.J. Ogilvy has a chance have a real impact (how many times have we said that?). I know Commodore fans continue to be frusterated with A.J. Rightly so. He is certainly not playing, consistenly, up to his potential. The good news for this team is the offense is dynamic enough that he doesn't have to dominate for the team to win. Still, given Arkansas' lack of size, and their desire to run, the more Vanderbilt can rely on A.J. to score in the half-court, the more likely they are to win.
- Contain Fortson: The sophomore guard is the key to Arkansas' offense. He, like South Carolina's Devan Downey, is a volume shooter. He's only shooting 38% from the floor and 30.8% from three. He's attempted 25% more shots then the next closest player on the team. He is not a player who understands "it's not my night," which means the Commodores will have to pay attention to him all night.
- Don't Let Someone Else Beat Us: Courtney Fortson is going to get his points no matter what. The key is not letting him make the other players on his team better such that they beat us. Arkansas has some guys who can score, but without Washington, their offense is much less dynamic.
Tomorrow's game is an important one, especially in light of the near-miss against Georgia Thursday in Memorial. Arkansas is an inconsistent team who is probably better than their .500 record would indicate, but not so good that this is a game Vanderbilt should drop. Arkansas still has a lot to play for. Their only shot at the NCAA tournament depends on winning the SEC Tournament and their best shot at doing that is winning the SEC West.
I wlll be in New York City getting ready to celebrate Papa O'Shea's 60th Birthday. Weather permitting, I'll be in the Big Apple and at my favorite haunts to see the action live. If anyone in VSLNation has a good luck spot for the Commodores, wifey and I would love to join.