Poor defense a 'wake-up call' for Arkansas

Mississippi forward Bruce Stevens (12) shoots an uncontested shot against Arkansas during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Mississippi won 84-67. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

FAYETTEVILLE — For the first two-plus months of the season, defense was Arkansas' calling card and largely what allowed it to win games despite a fairly average offense.

Then the last two weeks happened, and the Razorbacks are scrambling for answers and an identity defensively after a 1-4 start to league play. Granted Arkansas played three of the top four teams in the SEC in terms of offensive efficiency in that span, according to KenPom analytics, the Razorbacks were far and away more disconnected than at any other point in the season.

Arkansas, in consecutive games and losses to LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss, turned in their worst defensive performances of the season in terms of points per possession allowed. The teams scored at a 1.22 PPP clip over 233 possessions.

Tennessee dropped 106 points, the second most points allowed by any Arkansas team in an SEC game, in a 19-point home win, LSU shot 52 percent in an overtime win in Bud Walton Arena and Rebels guards Terence Davis and Breein Tyree combined for 40 points and nine assists in Oxford on Saturday, handing Arkansas its first four-game losing streak under Mike Anderson.

With a rivalry game against Missouri on Wednesday (8 p.m., SEC Network) and a road trip to No. 14 Texas Tech looming, Anderson is imploring his young team to get back to the roots of its early season success and take pride in defending again.

"I think we’ve really got to dig into the trenches and become one of those teams that says, ‘You know what? If we don’t score, then you don’t score,’" Anderson said Monday. "I think that’s got to be the mindset. Get stingy on them.

"I just think it’s a wake-up call for our guys because our defense is what we’ve got to hang our hats on. Then as your defense picks up, I think it takes you to another level on offense as well."

A portion of Arkansas' good fortune in nonconference stemmed from protecting the rim and denying opponents free looks inside the 3-point line. Albeit a small sample size, the Razorbacks were second nationally in opponent 2-point field goal percentage two games into the season. Through five games in SEC play, they're 10th in the league and teams are shooting nearly 52 percent inside the arc.

When asked about the recent defensive lapses and what can be done to correct them, forward Daniel Gafford pointed to Arkansas' poor interior defense and posing little opposition at the rim. The Razorbacks, as of Monday, are 11th in the SEC in block percentage on 2-point shots at nine percent - ahead of only Vanderbilt and Missouri.

Arkansas has blocked only 17 shots in league play, and Gafford and Chaney each have five. Gafford also alluded to troubling ballscreen defense and communication, which bit the Razorbacks early in the loss at Ole Miss.

"It’s just we’ve just got to protect the inside. If teams get in on the inside … when teams get it on the inside against us it’s automatic," Gafford said. "It’s like we have no resistance on the inside. Especially with big guys like me. You know I’m supposed to be blocking shots and stuff. I need to step up my defense. And since … like on ball-screen defense, we need to fix that also."

On a trajectory to be one of the three worst defensive teams in SEC play (1.10 PPP) in Anderson's tenure, he remains confident that the glaring mistakes will be corrected. Last season, Arkansas allowed 1.12 PPP over its first five conference games, and 1.15 PPP in 2016-17 before seeing improvement in February (1.06 PPP in Feb. 2017, 1.04 in Feb. 2018).

"I think we can fix it. I think it’s a matter of getting all the guys on the same page," Anderson said. "Our defense is geared toward putting pressure on people, and I think we’ve just been letting people run their offense. I really, really do. I think we’ve kind of been playing on our heels.

" ... What we do works, and we’ve seen that early on. Now we’ve just got to be able to put it together here. We’ve got to play with a little bit more pop, a little more energy. We’re an energy team. Once that energy is injected from a defensive standpoint, then we’re in an attacking mode offensively as well."