5 observations from Arkansas' 83-76 win at South Carolina

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Thursday, February 16, 2017
Arkansas forward Dustin Thomas (13) drives to the hoop against South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. Arkansas defeated South Carolina 83-76. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Arkansas forward Dustin Thomas (13) drives to the hoop against South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. Arkansas defeated South Carolina 83-76. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Five observations, with video, from Arkansas' 83-76 win at No. 21 South Carolina.

— Hogs in the zone

Arkansas fell behind by 14 early in what has become the norm for the Hogs on the road.

Mike Anderson went exclusively with a zone defense in the second half of the Hogs’ comeback win at LSU, a move that paid off and aided a struggling defense. He didn’t wait for halftime Wednesday, shifting the Hogs into their zone for good after South Carolina established its double-digit lead.

The Hogs gave up 1.73 points per possession in falling behind 19-7. That dropped to 0.95 once they made the move to the zone and stuck with it for most of the rest of the game.

Anderson deserves credit for adjusting his approach. This isn’t the way he wants to play defense, but it has become blatantly clear this roster isn’t suited to extend pressure against teams with good guards. So Anderson has adapted. He’s used the zone as a change-of-pace this year, but these last two games have signaled a seismic shift in philosophy.

It’s paid off. The Hogs posted a 90.9 defensive rating at LSU and while the 107 at South Carolina isn’t great, it was much better when they were in a zone and a step in the right direction. They’d posted worse ratings in 3 of their last 4 games and 4 of their last 6,

Playing zone fits this roster for several reasons.

Arkansas has struggled to press and trap this season in large part because there are almost always three players 6-3 or shorter on the court at once. Of those, Manny Watkins is the only plus defender. None of them possess great length or athleticism. That makes it hard to be effective extending pressure and has led to the Hogs being skewered by good or even quick point guards.

The zone allows the guards to play much more conservatively and defend an area of the court as opposed to matching up man-to-man, where their inability to contain the dribble essentially provided opposing guards with runways when the Hogs extended pressure.

South Carolina’s guards had a harder time finding seems to drive the ball against the zone. If the Hogs do decide to spring the occasional trap, they're already zoned up, an area in which they struggle in man defense. Passing lanes are either significantly narrower or shut off as a result.

The defense is much more compact in the zone. The guards can still close out to shooters, but there are less driving lanes, less space and more built-in help.

That final aspect may be the most important bonus of implementing a zone. In man looks, Arkansas has struggled to defend the pick-and-roll. The Hogs attack ball screens aggressively, at times showing hard and blitzing the ballhandler. More often, they’d begun to switch, leaving Moses Kingsley or someone else to try to hang with a guard off the bounce. That wasn’t ideal and it opened up the Hogs to mismatches elsewhere, namely Hog guards guarding opposing bigs. When Arkansas helped — either when a big was beaten off the dribble by an opposing guard or the other team went to the mismatch in the paint — the defense became a sieve, susceptible to busted rotations and open looks for patient opposing offenses.

Kingsley and Trey Thompson can park in the paint in the zone, keeping them out of mismatches beyond the arc and in position to protect the rim.

This is one of the biggest plays of the game. Kingsley is in the paint, in position to make a game-altering block.

Teams will adjust to the zone. South Carolina did a good job positioning shooters in the corners and cutting along the baseline behind the zone to find crevices, both tactics paying off in the form of open looks. Arkansas can do better against both moving forward.

But the zone has been a boon for Arkansas’ defense. It should be here to stay the rest of this season.

— Kingsley shines in all 3 phases

That Kingsley block was one of his 4 rejections, the eighth time this year he’s had at least 4 blocks.

He has 9 his last 2 games, an SEC-best 70 this season and is averaging 2.7 per game. He’s been protecting the rim all year, but Wednesday may very well have been his best all-around game.

He had a team-high 7 rebounds and was a big part of the reason the Hogs won the battle on the boards 31-30 after South Carolina grabbed 9 of the first 10 rebounds. The Gamecocks grabbed less than 30 percent of their own misses after coming down with their first three.

Wednesday was Kingsley’s best showing as a low-post scorer this season. He made 4 of 5 shots on post-ups, an area in which he has struggled mightily this season. He entered the game shooting a sub-par 46 percent from the floor, the result of his inefficiency on isolation post-ups and the Hogs guards rarely setting him up for easy buckets.

He was a factor in the paint Wednesday.

He established good, early position on both plays and made quick, confident moves once he received the entry pass.

This was one of the biggest shots of the game.

Late clock, left block, pump fake, bucket. That’s a big-time move.

Arkansas made it a point to force feed Kingsley on a fairly regular basis in the early stages of the season, but has largely, wisely, gone away from doing so as often lately. That likely won’t change as a result of Wednesday. It shouldn’t.

But his effectiveness on the touches he did get had a big impact on the game. This was an SEC Player of the Year-like performance.

— Barford, Hannahs go shot for shot with Thornwell

Sindarius Thornwell and Malik Monk are entrenched in a race for Player of the Year honors. Thornwell continued his push last week by averaging 36 points per game.

He dropped a ‘lowly’ game-high 27 on Wednesday. Jaylen Barford and Dusty Hannahs canceled that out by combining for 43 against the nation’s best defense.

Arkansas has offensively gifted guards. No secret there. But the showing in Columbia by Hannahs and Barford was a reminder of just how talented these guys are.

Consider this: South Carolina came into the game ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency, allowing just 86.2 points per 100 possessions this year, just 90.8 in SEC play. Arkansas posted a 120.3 offensive rating and did it with ONLY 12 ASSISTS. The Hogs entered the night ranked 11th in SEC play, assisting on just 48.3 percent of their makes. That number was 40 percent Wednesday.

Of Barford and Hannahs’ 17 made shots, only 6 were assisted. They created most of their offense one-on-one and did it at a high level against an elite defense.

Barford was superb in the opening 20 minutes, putting up 17 of his team-high 23 points in another first-half explosion as Arkansas used a 25-2 run to erase the deficit and take a 39-32 halftime lead. He hit 2 tough mid-range jumpers and pair of 3-pointers. When his shot is on, he becomes very tough to defend because of his ability to get to the rim and make shots like this.

Hannahs scored 20, including 9 in a row for the Hogs in 2:03 to turn a 1-point lead into a 64-57 advantage.

Wide-eyed emoji. He took Thornwell to school on a couple of those.

Remember how every single Arkansas football broadcast in 2015 included the same anecdote about how the Hogs had the biggest offensive line in all of football? It seems like every Arkansas basketball game this year has included a mention of how Hannahs is more than just a shooter. We get it. It’s not a new thing.

He made some tough shots Wednesday, but he’s been making shots like that all year. He’s been making 3-pointers his whole life, but has taken them at a higher rate the last 2 games. He hit 4 of 7 on Wednesday after going 5 of 10 in the LSU win, two of just 4 games with at least 7 attempts this year. The 17 combined shots are tied for his third-most in a 2-game stretch in his Arkansas career.

That is a good thing. Hannahs is at his best when gunning and the threat of his shot petrifies defenses and spreads the floor, opening it up for his teammates and himself, when he chooses to flash that off-the-bounce flair.

Shots like the off-balance make or the 30-foot heat check are OK for a shooter of Hannahs’ caliber. He has the range and the skill to take and make them. More 3s, please, Dusty.

The Hogs just beat the best defense in the nation by making one-on-one plays. That is very impressive. There were sequences, including late in the game, where the stagnation in the halfcourt was an issue. It has been most of this year.

That’s a reality with the makeup of this roster. Their ability to score a lot of points is also very real.

— Thomas impacts again

Dustin Thomas’ line won’t jump out at anyone: 2 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 block and 1 steal before fouling out in 26 minutes. But his impact on the game was indelible.

Arkansas was +25 in those 26 minutes. Single-game, individual +/- is a noisy stat that depends on lineups and situational factors, but it isn’t a worthless stat. Thomas was +23 in the first half, while the Hogs were -7 without him on the court.

He shown a bit more of his passing skill the past 2 games, a talent that he hasn’t tapped into as much as he probably needed to as a whole this year.

Not a lot of 4s can both identify those passes and then make them. He has the ability to be an additional playmaker on a team that can use all the passing it can get.

Here’s a play that won’t show up in the stat sheet for Thomas.

He battles for an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, a board most players concede. His efforts result in the ball bouncing out of bounds of South Carolina, which sets up a Hannahs 3. Little plays like that are so crucial.

Thomas likely would have played 30 minutes for the first time this season had he not fouled out. He’s played 26 minutes off the bench in each of the last 2 games. His averages of 5.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 steals and 1.5 assists aren’t great, but the Hogs are +48 in his 52 minutes on the court and -33 in the 28 minutes he’s sat.

That’s a small sample size, but given the issues the Hogs have had at the 4, it feels like a huge development.

Adrio Bailey has started the last 2 games and played with energy, but his motor hasn’t helped cure the Hogs’ slow starts and it’s evident he doesn’t have Anderson’s full trust yet. Arlando Cook has become the fifth big in the rotation, playing just 7 minutes the last 2 games combined.

Thomas is the man at the 4, for now. That could change Saturday for all we know. But he’s played well in a supporting role in the last 2 Hog wins.

— Manny Watkins, unlikely hero

What was this?

Manny Watkins had the answer: "That one was just God. I threw it up and God put it in."

Also: peep Anderson’s reaction in the upper left corner of the screen.

His game-winner at Ole Miss 2 years ago was a floater, his go-to shot. That's a bigger shot since it actually won the game, but this is no slouch, an unlikely bucket he produced by hoisting up a desperate heave with the shot clock hitting zero.

It was a huge shot and will go down as one of the most memorable of his career. The rest of his game was a typical Manny performance. He had 6 points (3 of 4 shooting), 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in 27 minutes. Nothing flashy about that line. Just Manny being Manny.

This sequence would have been the apex of Watkins’ night had it not been for the last-minute shot.

He was aggressive putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim Wednesday, forcing the defense to honor him, which is always a plus for the Hogs’ offense. He follows up the strong take with a deflection, then comes up with a block and follows it up by making the blindside swipe that, even though it results in the foul, is a heads-up play.

He made his first start in 10 games, a move that came with Anton Beard under the weather but one that also allowed him to match up with Thornwell from the jump. The Hogs going zone nullified that one-on-one defensive responsibility, but Watkins just makes the team better when he’s on the court. He entered the night with a 27.7 net rating, best among the team’s guards.

Watkins played his usual solid game in Columbia, but he capped it off with an improbable, important dagger as the Hogs snapped a three-year drought against ranked teams.

Stray Thoughts

— Frank Martin’s postgame interview was candid and highly interesting. I’d suggest watching it.

— Arkansas and Kingsley benefited from Chris Silva being in foul trouble. He only played 18 minutes before fouling out, but had 16 points and 8 rebounds, including 3 offensive boards. Thornwell will be gone next year, but Silva and PJ Dozier are a solid duo and Frank Martin seems to have recruited well. Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State are on the rise, but expect the Gamecocks to sustain the progress Martin has going.

— Hogs made 7 of 14 from 3 against a team that entered the night holding opponents to a nation-best 27.7 percent shooting from deep. Would have liked to have seen more attempts. They are last in the SEC in attempts and the 14 are still tied for their fourth-fewest this year. They took a season-high 26 against LSU, but that’s an aberration for this team. Shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc against South Carolina is impressive, but it’s even more impressive they were able to be so productive offensively taking as many tough 2-pointers as they did.

— Beard was sick, which explains him only playing 5 minutes. Had a heck of an offensive rebound for being sick, but probably a smart decision by Anderson to lean on the other 4 rotation guards.

— The decision to increase Bailey’s minutes makes sense on the surface. The Hogs’ starting lineups are -13 with him in them the last 2 games. Obviously that’s not all (or even mostly) on him, but the team’s best lineup, by far, is Barford, Macon, Hannahs, Thomas and Kingsley. It will be interesting to see if and when Anderson goes back to that as a starting unit as it gets closer to March.

— Speaking of March, this win is huge. The Hogs are in the tournament provided they avoid any slipups the rest of the way. Obviously this team hasn’t been a model of consistency, but they’re now positioned well, with that elusive signature win, heading into the final 5 games of the regular season.


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