(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
The Arkansas Razorbacks and the Memphis Tigers each lost their final regular season game this Saturday. It was the Tigers’ fourth straight loss and the Hogs’ fourth defeat in five games.
If you are a regular reader, you know that I bleed blue and gray, and that I have simply a passing interest in the Razorbacks. I’ve followed every Memphis game like they were the pied piper, and I was a little hungry mouse.
There have been grumblings in the River City this year that Calipari is too tough on his players. People are saying he only takes time out from whining to officials to scream at selected Tigers that aren’t doing what he wants.
Memphis fans are fickle, and that’s putting it politely. I love my hometown, but it has more bandwagon fans per capita than any other city in the Milky Way. When local legend Larry Finch was coaching the Tigers to 20-wins a season – and regularly beating the likes of Denny Crum, Norm Stewart and later on Bob Huggins – I had daily ‘discussions’ (that often turned into angry shouting matches) with people who insisted that Larry leave.
The man was a Tiger for life. He put the program on his back as a player and took it to the Final Four in ‘72, and then resurrected it after Dana Kirk’s improprieties threatened to destroy it in the 80s.
He won consistently, but that wasn’t good enough. The fans eventually had their way and Finch was unceremoniously dumped with a concession stand contract buy-out.
Now these same fans are turning on Calipari, for doing the same things that made him a legend in Massachusetts, turned the decrepit Nets towards the play-offs and warranted him the keys to the city upon his hire in Memphis.
The Tigers’ main problem this year is they can’t shoot. There is a lot of other stuff, but bottom line is they can’t put it in the bucket. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you can’t win like that.
Which leads me back to the Hogs.
Almost everyone I talk to thinks that Stan Heath needs to be replaced. I listen to talk radio and hear people coming out from under the porch to describe the proper way to attack a zone, like Heath is unaware.
I even criticized him last year, when the Hogs were struggling with their shooting and a certain former lights-out shooting Panther wasn’t seeing any playing time. Heath took jabs this year for putting together a “soft” schedule, and then later on for his late-season SEC swoon.
Heath has never built a team from the ground-up, and I wasn’t sure he could. After the loss to Auburn on Saturday, I was ready to rake him over the coals. But then something funny happened.
I looked at the numbers.
Numbers don’t lie, and the story they are telling about Stan is a tale of a work in progress. For anyone out there that needs to be told, the Hogs are a young team and young teams struggle more times than not.
Creating a supposed “easy” schedule before the rigors of SEC play was the only way to go. The goal of any schedule is to win, and when you’re playing cupcakes, the objective should be blowouts.
Check. The Razorbacks won by an average of 28 points per game in their non-conference slate. That doesn’t include the 10-point win over Missouri, the 12-point win over Tulsa, and the loss to Illinois- in which the Hogs were outscored by just two in the second half.
After their league-opening butt kicking of Ole Miss, the Hogs were 13-1, and most everyone was talking NCAA tournament. But then they lost four in a row and the slide began.
Like most young teams, Arkansas plays better at home. They finished 5-3 in SEC home games, compared to 1-7 on the road. The thing is, they only lost by an average of 8.6 points per game in the 10 conference losses – which includes the 25-point beat down courtesy of the Bulldogs. And when they win in the SEC, they do it by an average of 13.3 points.
A quick check of the season stats shows that the Hogs played outstanding defense. They finished second to Kentucky in scoring defense and opponent’s FG percentage.
They took excellent care of the ball (second best in turnover margin), but couldn’t shoot it, finishing in the lower tier of free throw and field goal percentage.
In my many conversations about hoops over the years, I had one person tell me that when a player can’t shoot, it’s coaching. Now this happened when a Tiger (coached by Larry Finch), missed a free throw during crunch time.
Shooting is not the coach’s fault. By the time a player gets to college, he should be able to put the ball in the basket. Coaches can offer tips and instruction – but check out Shaq, who has had more individual instruction from every shot doctor and genius of the game, and still shoots free throws like he can’t see.
So according to the numbers, Heath is an excellent motivator, recruiter, and defensive tactician. He teaches his players to take care of the ball and take high percentage shots. The shooting woes should be solved next season, when Preston Cranford will get a chance to light up the SEC like he did the 2AAA.
I guess my point to all this is, give the man a chance. It’s just his third year, and the team has improved gradually, despite not having much talent the first two campaigns.
To help, I’ll impart a familiar refrain that we Tiger fans chant with grotesque regularity.
”Can’t wait until next year”.