With another big early-season SEC matchup on the horizon for Auburn, this time on the road against the Arkansas Razorbacks, I swapped questions and answers with Trent Wooldridge of Arkansas Expats. For my answers to Trent's questions, click here.
Chris Fuhrmeister for College and Magnolia: Auburn and Arkansas fans have a lot in common right now. Our football seasons sucked, and both teams are going through coaching transitions. Are you as thrilled as I am that it's basketball season?
Trent Wooldridge for Arkansas Expats: Bowl season is rough without a dog in the fight, isn't it? It is definitely exciting to have a team to cheer for whose hopes have not yet been dashed, although it was difficult to get into the swing of basketball season during a stilted, boring December. The Razorbacks only played seven games between the SEC Championship game and the BCS National Championship, and five of the seven were cupcakes.
The onset of conference play and competitions that actually matter is certainly a welcome change after the non-conference basketball and a football season that was in the tank by the end of September. Hell, the last time I had any type of anticipation regarding a Razorback sporting event, people thought that Mitt Romney was going to be the president and Geno Smith was going to win the Heisman.
CF: Nolan Richardson disciple Mike Anderson is in his second season in Fayetteville. After successful runs at UAB and Missouri, he hasn't really whipped the Razorbacks into shape yet. What's the general attitude toward Anderson right now?
TW: I think it's still generally positive. Anderson likely gets a longer leash than an outsider would get based on his history with Razorback basketball. The style of play that Mike favors is extremely fun to watch when it's working, and fans are doing a passable job of savoring the good to get them through the bad. Reason being, of course, that when it's bad, it's bad.
That isn't to say that there aren't those already jumping off the bandwagon. There are a few, although it's so early it makes one wonder if they were ever truly on in the first place.
CF: Arkansas is coming off an ugly loss to Texas A&M and a fairly ugly win over an awful Vanderbilt team. What kinds of expectations did Razorback fans have entering this season? Is the team living up to them?
TW: I think most expected and expect some sort of postseason appearance. NIT or one of the last teams into the Big Dance. I think the Razorbacks are still on schedule for that type of season. The skepticism from fans is coming from two or three truly horrendous performances away from Bud Walton: a miserable two-game outing in Las Vegas which saw ugly losses to Arizona State and Wisconsin, and then the debacle in College Station last week. Suffering through those games, and I watched every second of each, it's easy to feel as if you might wander in the desert forever without winning a meaningful game.
TW: Kikko Haydar is certainly the player who has surprised with his contribution this season. A walk-on, Haydar is undersized but makes up for it with defensive tenacity marked by efficient footwork and active hands. He's also deadly accurate from behind the arc. More than anything, he doesn't make mistakes, offensively or defensively.
Other players to keep an eye on are Michael Qualls, a freshman who is one of the best leapers ever to play for the Razorbacks, and Hunter Mickelson, a sophomore post player who has a tendency to get shoved around down low, but also can show flashes of brilliance in his moves around the basket.
The most disappointing player on the team, to me, has to be Rashad Madden. A highly rated in-state recruit in the class of 2011, Madden's style of play is reminiscent of a puppy chasing around one of those laser pens as you point it at the floor. I really want to get positive minutes out of him, but it never fails that I end up screaming obscenities at the television. It's become a joke on Twitter to wait for me to go apoplectic whenever Madden throws the ball out-of-bounds or incurs a 10-second violation despite not being guarded.
CF: What does Arkansas's offense look like when it's being executed properly. What are the Razorbacks' strengths? Weaknesses?
TW: Arkansas' offense, when executed properly, is one that is always attacking. Guards look to push the ball quickly up the court following a defensive rebound or made basket, and the Razorbacks score a significant percentage of their points in transition. Lots of layups and dunks for the Hogs when things are going well, with lots of kickout threes. If forced to run a half-court set, it often seems that guard penetration is what is required to get things moving.
Arkansas' biggest weakness on offense would either be shooting accuracy or rebounding. The Hogs simply don't shoot the basketball very well as a team, nor are they very adept at positioning themselves to retrieve their misses. It's why transition scoring is so, so critical.
CF: How about defense? What do the Hogs do well? In what areas do they falter?
TW: The Razorbacks defensive philosophy is well known, and tends to be very effective at home. Pressure from baseline to baseline, aggressive on-ball defenders with active, swatting hands. Chaos is the goal, with turnovers and rushed shots being the payoff.
This philosophy sees much greater success at home than on the road, as turnovers in Bud Walton Arena are whistled as fouls elsewhere.
Once a shot, good or bad, is in the air, things really get interesting. Arkansas is a historically poor rebounding program, and this team certainly lives up to that stereotype. The Hogs allow way too many second and third opportunities for opponents to score.
CF: How do you think this game plays out? What's your prediction?
TW: When the Razorbacks are inside Bud Walton Arena, they look like a completely different team than they do on the road. They tend to get away with more on defense, they hit the boards more aggressively, and they shoot the basketball much better, from the field and at the line. Knowing that, it's hard to go against Arkansas against Auburn.
I fully anticipate the Hogs to take the lead in the first few minutes of the game. If they can avoid a cold spell shooting the basketball, they may lead wire to wire. If, however, they suffer through any scoring droughts similar to the ones they have fallen victim to at other times this season, things could stay very ugly and very tight until the end of the game.
Going full on homer, I predict that Arkansas figures out a way to dictate the tempo, and shoot much better in a 79-70 victory over Auburn.