“It just took me to go to the glass, aggressively,” Powell said. “That’s what I’m going to do every game the rest of the year.” These are the words of Arkansas sophomore forward Marshawn Powell on what it took to log 11 rebounds against Auburn. You could debate on whether perhaps playing a team that misses 23 consecutive shots would help you get extra rebounds, but let’s leave that alone for now. 19 games into his second season as a Razorback, apparently Marshawn Powell now has linked crashing the boards with actually getting rebounds, and he’s going to do it, FROM NOW ON.
Over the course of the last 3 seasons, there have been more head-scratching moments surrounding the Arkansas Razorback Basketball squad than at a head lice doctor. Players get hot, they go to the bench. Individuals display superior athletic ability, and the team excels when they take the floor, and they disappear from the lineup for weeks at a time. Arkansas takes a lead by playing an aggressive press, and they drop back into a soft defense for the rest of the month.
Rotnei Clarke is the greatest shooter in Arkansas Razorback history. In the right system, he could be an honest-to-Buddha 20 point-per-game scorer. It seems as though we have one play for Clarke, a baseline screen that usually results in Rotnei looking like a really frustrated Jimmy Neutron as whoever has him for an assignment laughs their way through shutting down the Hogs’ top scoring threat. For 2 ½ seasons now, Clarke has caught the lion’s share of blame for what should be obvious by now – John Pelphrey’s Arkansas Razorbacks do not know how to score in the half court.
It feels at times like every player on this team has a go-to move that does not work. Marvell Waithe likes to shoot threes from the wing, which never, ever go in. Delvon Johnson has a little hook shot in the lane that never, ever goes in. Michael Sanchez likes to dribble down the lane, which is a tricky habit as Sanchez doesn’t dribble particularly well. Glenn Bryant shoots the 12-15 -foot jumper, and he should never shoot any jump shot other than the put-back SportsCenter highlight. Now, everyone has parts of their own game they overvalue (I’ve almost perfected the floater in the paint), but one would think that perhaps the coach would have identified these issues, and ended the problem. It’s an easy fix – “Hey, Delvon, you try to go Abdul-Jabbar on me again, I’ll run you until you vomit up your spleen.” Problem solved.
It isn’t just wins and losses that track the levels of despair into which Razorback Nation has been plunged. However, wins and losses alone would certainly be just cause for an end to the Pelphrey Experiment at this point. Arkansas is today 64-53 overall in the Pelphrey era. 21-33 in the SEC. 4-23 on the road against the SEC. Those are horrendous numbers.
But I truly believe the angst felt throughout the Arkansas fan base isn’t just the result of these numbers. I think the fans watch Arkansas play basketball, and they don’t know what they are seeing. No one, including John Pelphrey, seems to have any clue what the offensive OR defensive identity of this team is. No one seems to understand the substitution patterns, from the habit of sitting the hot hand, to the habit of performing offense-for-defense subs at inopportune moments and at an excessive rate. No one seems to understand why the team doesn’t run plays to isolate and open Rotnei Clarke. Why they don’t try to establish an inside-outside game with Powell and Johnson inside, and the 382 small guards on the roster outside.
John Pelphrey had a modicum of success in his first season at Arkansas. He won a game in the NCAA tournament, which Stan Heath never could. The team looked more than capable at times, and made the final game of the SEC Tournament. There is a part of me that thinks that the coaching of John Pelphrey isn’t the problem, the mistakes he’s made in team-building is. That part is shut up with a quickness when I watch his teams play. Pelphrey could do very well with the incoming class, but it’s hard to believe he doesn’t have a ceiling, and probably an unacceptable one. Put another way – no matter how good this class is, does ANYONE think a National Championship is a likely outcome? With John Pelphrey coaching?
An in-state class like the one coming for John Pelphrey happens in Arkansas about every 25 years or so. So, what happens AFTER those kids come and go, assuming Pelphrey is the coach throughout? Are the Hogs back to a perennial .500 SEC team in the conference’s worst years? I didn’t open this article with the selected Powell quote to shame Marshawn Powell, or to disrespect him in any manner. I began with that quote because it irked me to no end. It seemed to me, in the moment I read it, to be emblematic of what Arkansas Basketball has become. The most obvious of basketball statements presented as a novel discovery – that to me is what I observe when I watch John Leslie Pelphrey coach the game.
I grew up watching highly ranked Arkansas teams murder national contenders on national television. You knew coming in that they would try to embarrass you, but you couldn’t stop it. We are now long removed from those days. Some would say Arkansas fans do themselves a disservice by still judging the program against those lofty and far-too-gone standards, and they are right. Arkansas isn’t what Arkansas was. But Arkansas should never be what Arkansas is.
All sickness is not death, and it seems as though everyone is generally aware of what the nature of the sickness really is. The incoming players may very well serve as a temporary medicine for this sickness, but that doesn’t mean the body will be healed. I mean no personal ill-will toward Pelphrey. I am not a “hater”, or consistent demander of regime change. But the man was well down our list when he was hired, at a time when no one established wanted the job. Pelphrey has done what he can to close the gap of where he was to where he needs to be, but I can hardly imagine at this point that anyone believes he will eventually close that gap completely. And if he does, but at the expense of several more seasons and a bumper crop of homegrown talent, are Arkansas fans ready to make that trade in the name of Pelphrey’s personal journey to coaching competency?
The sickness that has infested Arkansas Basketball is not found in the players who represent the program. It is found in a coach who, for all his positives, is simply not ready for this level of a program. The powers-that-be can either acknowledge this obvious reality and act accordingly, or continue to skip down Oblivious Lane while Bud Walton Arena rots from its empty, ribbon-boarded insides.
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