Jimmy Carter is an award-winning reporter covering Arkansas football and basketball for WholeHogSports.com. He was born in Texas and grew up in Tulsa. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Can Hogs make significant defensive strides?
Arkansas' Manuale Watkins (left) and Jaylen Barford cover North Carolina's Luke Maye Sunday March 19, 2017 during the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Razorbacks 72-65 eliminating them from the tournament.
FAYETTEVILLE Adrio Bailey was in position, took the hit with his chest and didn’t get the call.
The play continued as Joel Berry barreled over Bailey, barfed up a brick off the backboard and was bailed out by a putback by Kennedy Meeks late in the shot clock.
The comeback in the final minutes of North Carolina’s win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament will be remembered as one of several key catalysts to a championship run in Chapel Hill, while going down as a ‘what if’ in Fayetteville.
In a 26-win season, the no-call sequence is a near-lock to go down as the most memorable defensive moment of the season, an unfortunate irony given that their defensive performance against North Carolina was the best they produced all year, a throwback of sorts to the way Razorback teams from the past played.
A veteran UNC team was flummoxed by Arkansas pressure, committing 17 turnovers that led to 24 points as the Razorbacks battled back from a 17-point hole to lead late and put a scare into the eventual champs.
"That's the hardest we ever played," guard Daryl Macon said after the game.
He might have a point. There was definitely something different about that game when considering the defensive shortcomings the Razorbacks struggled with much of the year.
North Carolina shot just 38 percent from the floor. The Hogs’ defense was stifling in a high-stakes setting against a top-tier opponent, an about-face from struggles which plagued them against good offenses most of the season.
The North Carolina game was the exception to the rule, which was Arkansas’ consistent struggle on that end against talented offenses. Last season’s Razorbacks were, statistically, the worst defensive team Mike Anderson has coached in his 15 years at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas.
Rule changes designed to aid offense and up point totals have led to a bump in scoring over the last few years, with last year’s nationwide adjusted average of 104.7 points per 100 possessions ranking as the highest mark in the last 15 years. But the Razorbacks allowed a grotesque 107.8 in SEC play, putting them 11th out of 14 conference teams.
Improving the defense will be paramount to Arkansas sustaining its success and recording its first consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances since 2008. College basketball, all basketball really, is a guard-centric game, so Macon and Jaylen Barford’s decision to return for their senior seasons means the Hogs should again field a top-notch offense. But they have to replace a trio of graduated starters, including Moses Kingsley and Manny Watkins, probably the two best defenders on last year’s roster.
So how likely is a defensive jump? To answer that, it’s important to understand the key issues from last year’s team and what has or hasn’t been done to improve them.
There are a number of other, more nuanced issues to dive into, but ineffective pressure was the root of the problem: Arkansas simply did not have enough of the players it needed to be able to play pressure defense the way Mike Anderson wants, the way his teams in the past have.
The Hogs relied on oft-stellar offense to overcome porous defense because the roster construction was fundamentally flawed to play the way they wanted, the way Anderson has had success most of his career.
Arkansas lacked the kind of long, athletic and versatile wings who thrive in Anderson’s system, instead fielding a roster of bigs who couldn’t consistently spread the floor or playmake and guards who stood 6-foot-3 or shorter. To compound matters, of the shorter guards, all but Manny Watkins were generally less than defensively inclined, to put it kindly.
The lack of length, quickness and defensive ability changed the way the Hogs played.
On average, they pressed slightly more than 12 times per game, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. Anderson’s other 26-win team at Arkansas pressed 17 times per game in 2014-15. The Razorbacks still played at one of the fastest paces in the nation on offense, averaging just 15.7 seconds per offensive possession, a number which ranked 33rd in the nation. But they were mostly unable to dictate tempo with their defense. Opposing offenses operated at one of the slowest paces in the nation, averaging 17.9 seconds per possession, which ranked 288th out of 351 teams. The gap between 15.7 and 17.9 may not seem like much, but over the course of a game that features 70 possessions for each team, that adds up to a difference of 2:14 in time of possession.
When the Razorbacks did try to apply pressure, their guards were often susceptible to getting burned by quicker opponents who cracked the defense and left the back end of the press exposed and overextended.
Quick guards were a problem in general for the Razorbacks. Watkins was the only consistent plus defender in the backcourt, which made it difficult to play the kind of defense necessary to pressure teams on a game-by-game basis.
Dusty Hannahs was an offensive juggernaut, but even his improved defense his senior year was substandard. Anton Beard is feisty and possesses strong hands that allow him to deflect balls and swipe steals, but will always be undersized and doesn’t necessarily make up for his lack of height with great quickness. Jaylen Barford is built like a fort, but can struggle laterally against quick competition. Daryl Macon’s work on the offensive side of the ball showcased his quick-twitch ability, but the same effort wasn’t always there on defense.
Simply put, the Razorbacks didn’t have enough defensive-minded guards on the roster with the physical traits to make a real impact on that end of the floor. At times, the guys they did have didn't appear to be connected on that end.
Those realities led to Anderson employing a zone defense more often than he had at any other point in his tenure at Arkansas, save for his first season. According to Synergy, the Hogs played zone nearly one-fourth of their possessions.
It’s apparent the staff has made it a priority to address the roster imbalance in recruiting while benefiting from the in-state talent in the class of 2017.
Khalil Garland is a 6-5 wing with a 6-6 wingspan who projects as being able to guard multiple positions. Darious Hall is 6-6 with a massive 7-foot wingspan, another wing who could theoretically be able to guard 1-5 in time. Gabe Usabuohien is 6-8 with a reported 7-1 wingspan.
That’s some serious length. Garland and Hall especially should be able to hound guards.
“I think we can play a lot faster than we did last year," Anderson said. "I think we can really put (in) a lot of the defensive things we want to, whether it be extending the floor with the length and athletic ability we have and also from an attacking standpoint.”
Defensive strugglers were a large part of the reason C.J. Jones wasn’t a part of the rotation as a freshman, but his 6-5 frame and athleticism suggest he has the ability to be impactful on that end of the floor as he gains strength and develops a better understanding of the defensive concepts Anderson and his staff preach.
Still, Barford, Macon and Beard figure to play more minutes than the above underclassmen and they’ll have to be better against opposing point guards.
Barford and Macon tested NBA Draft waters in the spring. For them to have any chance to play at the highest level, their defense has to vastly improve. Barford showed flashes, including taking the lead in holding Georgia’s dynamic J.J. Frazier to a 5 of 15 night in early March. Barford took the challenge of guarding an All-SEC caliber player that day in Bud Walton Arena and won the matchup. That has to happen on a more consistent basis.
The hope is Barford and Macon will be on the same page with each other and the rest of the defense more often in year two.
Check out this play from the Fort Wayne game.
Barford and Macon botch a switch on a guard-guard screen, leaving both scrambling and out of position. It was the season opener, both players' major college debut. They each got better throughout the course of the season, but the Hogs as a whole were prone to mental gaffes like the above.
Macon and Watkins mix signals here and the result is a straight-line drive for a jam. If teams are going to switch on a frequent basis, nailing those switches and rotations are imperative.
Still, defensive miscommunications happen all the time in basketball. They're unavoidable, especially are there is a variety of schemes utilized on that end. Arkansas fits that bill. Anderson loves employing multiple defenses to keep opponents guessing.
Will the Razorbacks play man or zone? Will they press? Will they switch everything, on and off the ball? Will they blitz the pick-and-roll or try to down a middle ball screen?
When the defense is working in unison, the result can be swarming and downright frightening for opponents, who are left guessing about what coverages they're facing and having to react on the fly in the face of pressure, the perfect recipe for mistakes. But oftentimes the Razorbacks were doing guesswork of their own last year.
Communication is of the utmost importance when defending the pick-and-roll, which has become increasingly popularized in today's game. The main purpose of ball screens are to give the ballhandler separation while forcing the defense, both on and off-ball, to think. Often, the Razorbacks switched up how they defended the PNR. Often, they struggled. In fact, they ranked in just the 20th percentile nationally guarding pick-and-roll ballhandlers, according to Synergy.
Here, they try to switch the pick-and-roll, a tactic they often used last year. But Hannahs is late to react and when he does, incorrectly rotates to pick up the roll man, who Macon has already correctly switched onto and bumped in the lane. That leaves Macon's man open for the 3 before Hannahs can recover.
Here, Arlando Cook drops a bit against the screen, which, when executed correctly should allow the wing defender, Macon in this case, to stay home on the short-corner shooter since Cook is essentially defending both the roll man and ballhandler until the on-ball defender gets back in position. Moses Kingsley is even lodged in the paint, yet Macon still dips down to help and leaves his man wide open for the easy 3.
Macon didn't fully commit to the roll man and wasn't in awful position, but was still late to close out. Every inch matters and even a small misstep can lead to an open shot or a chain reaction that gives the offense an advantage.
Here, Arkansas blitzes Mississippi State freshman Lamar Peters. Peters remains calm, draws the pressure with him toward halfcourt and then gets rid of the ball, giving the Bulldogs a 4 on 3 power play they turn into a dunk. Perhaps he turns it over against longer, more athletic defenders.
At times, the issues against the PNR got back to the struggles against quick guards. Cats like Juwan Evans and De’Aaron Fox are tough for anyone to check, while other speedsters had similar success against the Hogs.
It’s safe to expect Barford and Macon to be sharper and more consistent in year two of the system. That comes with experience.
Early last season, Jones couldn’t prove to the coaching staff he was able to nail the rotations and make the right reads, which made it an easy decision to roll with the older, more experienced guards. To his credit, Jones took it in stride and sought out assistant TJ Cleveland to do extra film work every day in an effort to improve.
Garland and Hall’s length isn’t of much use if it’s sitting on the bench next to long-time trainer Dave England, so their quick acclimation to college ball will be important. Not every freshman learns at the same pace, but the Hogs need this pair to be intuitive.
“Hopefully we’ll be a lot more athletic team," Anderson said.
Same goes for fellow freshman Daniel Gafford, an athletic 6-11 center who will be counted on to help replace Moses Kingsley’s production, a tall task for a hyped recruit. Having a big on the back line who can call out the defense and read the game is vital, which is why senior Trey Thompson will have to be ready to play a larger role than he has to this point in his career.
At 6-9, 260, Thompson isn’t the prototypical Anderson big, but he is a good program guy, a splendid passer and an underrated rim protector, both positionally and from a shot-blocking standpoint.
He’s also a good rebounder, something the Razorbacks can never get enough of. He was one of the few on the team last year. The Razorbacks were awful on the defensive glass, allowing opponents to rebound more than 34 percent of their misses, which placed them 333rd out of 351 Division I teams. Second-chance points were a major issue.
Arkansas has never ranked higher than 170th nationally in defensive rebounding during Anderson’s tenure, but last year was the low point. It was an odd problem at times. The Razorbacks more than held their own against a massive Texas A&M team that led the league in rebounding, but struggled in many other games, suggesting their rebounding efforts were directly tied to how much effort was expended and emphasis placed on hitting the glass.
The Razorbacks lose Kingsley, one of the SEC’s best at snaring contested boards the last few years, but should benefit from the added length on the roster. Thompson will do his part in the paint and the Hogs are optimistic Gafford’s length and athleticism will allow him to do a reasonable Kingsley impression as he adjusts to the college game.
His progression will be key because his presence on the floor could potentially unlock some neat switching lineups. Thompson, for all his strengths, can’t hang with a guard on the perimeter. Kingsley had a tendency to go for swipes when he was locked onto a little dude, a habit that succeeded more than a few times but one that also left the rest of the defense in a bind when he failed. Gafford, in time, should have the lateral quicks to be a similarly capable but hopefully less gambling player.
Having more length on the wings should help immensely, because even if Kingsley held up on the initial switch, the reciprocal effects were damaging to last year’s Razorbacks.
Often, opposing offenses were left with one of their bigs posting up a small Arkansas guard, a turn of events which led to panicky help and left the Razorbacks vulnerable to miscommunications as the ball was kicked and reversed around the perimeter until the stretched defense finally snapped and yielded an open jumper or unobstructed path to the rim.
Now, a roster devoid of wings has a number of rangy, switchy options to plug in. Switching across the board is theoretically a great answer if a team has the personnel to employ it. It’s much harder to attack a defense that can switch everything and not have to fret about overreacting to major mismatches.
It’s fair to remain skeptical about the defense moving into the 2017-18 season. After all, the Razorbacks lost their best (only?) defensive guard and an absolute stud of a rim protector.
But Anderson is moving the needle the right direction.
A player like Hall will never pose the kind of offensive threat a player like Hannahs did, but the archetype a player Hall fits in is at the cornerstone of Anderson’s system.
He didn’t really have that type of player at his disposal last year. This season, he will.
We’ll have to see how much of a difference it makes.
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