Commentary:

Next 2 weeks of utmost importance for Anderson's Razorbacks

By: Harry King
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson during Arkansas' 57-51 loss to Florida, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson during Arkansas' 57-51 loss to Florida, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

— No. 1 on the charts for more than a month in 1960, the title of Elvis Presley’s best-selling single summarizes the position of Arkansas’ basketball team.

“It’s Now or Never,” Presley repeated several times on the record that sold 20 million copies. If Arkansas is going to salvage the season and tamp down some of the growing grousing about both this season and the next when Daniel Gafford is in the NBA, the time is nigh.

Beginning Wednesday night, Arkansas has a five-game stretch that includes three home games against some of the worst teams in the SEC, a trip to Lubbock vs. nationally-ranked Texas Tech and a road game against LSU, which won in overtime in Fayetteville on Jan. 12.

A sweep of Missouri, Georgia and Vanderbilt is all but mandatory if the Razorbacks have any hope of threatening .500 in league play.

Not since a 6-10 record in Mike Anderson’s first year in 2011-12 have the Razorbacks finished below .500 in conference play. They were 10-8 three times, a best of 13-5 in 2014-15, 12-6 once, and 9-9 once.

At 1-4, their situation would be labeled desperate except for the quality of the upcoming competition.

Missouri, Georgia and Vanderbilt are a combined 2-12 in the SEC. Also encouraging, they have lost a total of 22 games and are a combined 3-8 on the road.

In 3-point shooting and scoring, the Commodores, Bulldogs and Tigers are eighth, 11th and 14th in the SEC, and the teams are 11th, 12th and 13th in steals.

In other words, they should lose on the road to a decent opponent.

With anything less than 3-0 at home during the next two weeks ,one of Anderson’s achievements that is often cited in a rundown of his career will be in jeopardy. That is the notation that he is one of only four Division I head coaches who has coached 15 years or more without a losing season. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Gonzaga’s Mark Few are the others members of the exclusive club.

Anderson never came close to a losing season in four years at UAB, was 16-16 his second year at Missouri, 16-16 his fifth year at Arkansas and 10-7 this season.

That’s a tidy tidbit, but critics are quick to cite the fact that the Razorbacks have only finished better than tied for third in the SEC once during the seven-year tenure of Anderson, the former Nolan Richardson assistant, and that they have never gotten past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in three appearances.

Believed to be doable before conference play, earning an NCAA bid for the third year in a row now seems unlikely.

After all, Arkansas is not going to win at No. 16 Auburn or No. 8 Kentucky during a seven-day period in February, and there is no guarantee with any of the other league games.

Most frustrating to someone who watched Hazel Walker, the first woman inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, make 9-of-10 free throws blindfolded is that the Razorbacks could be 3-2 in the SEC if they had simply shot a decent percentage from the free-throw line against Florida and LSU.

In the six-point loss to the Gators, they were 15-of-26; in the overtime loss to LSU, they were 17-of-28. And those weren’t their worst performances of the year.

Walker did her thing at halftime of her all-star team’s eventual victory over a men’s team from North Little Rock back in the day when basketball on the high school campus was played on stage in the school auditorium. Once blindfolded, her every shot was delivered the same way — right foot slightly in front of the left, legs bent a bit.

The point is college players have been shooting at a 10-foot high basket from 15 feet away since junior high or before, and that successful shooters perfect the rhythm and the stroke with lonely and extended practice.

Recently inducted into the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor, the best free throw shooter in Razorback history, Rickey Medlock, learned under the watchful eye of his grandfather, a former high school coach in Sharp County, by shooting at a wire hoop nailed to a garage.

Medlock, who set a Southwest Conference record 48 in a row while at Arkansas, also had the necessary self-discipline —refusing to leave the Cave City High School gym until he made 10 consecutive free throws. If he missed, he did a line drill, and began again.

Medlock made 87-of-95 to lead the NCAA in free-throw shooting in 1973-74, and was 62-of-66 the following year, but needed four more attempts to qualify for the NCAA title.

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