Razorback Expats, the excellent Arkansas blog with whom we did a question exchange during football season, kindly asked us to do one with them again for the upcoming basketball game with the Hogs, and we gratefully accepted. Stephen and John are outstanding bloggers for the Razorbacks and have answered my questions with wit and intelligence. As you can imagine, a good number were about John Pelphrey, and I think you will find their answers fascinating.
So without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, I bring you John and Stephen of Razorback Expats. My questions are in bold.
What do you think of John Pelphrey as a coach so far?
We like him a lot; it's hard not to. He's classy, his obvious passion and intensity are endearing, and he doesn't take any crap from his players. He scored lots of PR points by playing in the team's Red-White intrasquad preseason game. He doesn't currently have the players to play his style of ball, but the promise of an imminent return to a pressing, fast-paced attack has Hog fans excited about the future. And, he appears to be recruiting well.
Having said all that, it's just too early to tell if he's the man to return the program to the glory days of the '80s and '90s. Give us a call in a couple of years, once he's had a chance to work with his recruits.
The Razorbacks have had a lot of talent, but they have underachieved a bit this year in my estimation. Do you agree? Why or why not?
We disagree - sort of. Yes, the Hogs have been something of a disappointment this year. We think that's fair to say. But we've come to the conclusion that that's because everyone - fans, media, everyone - has overestimated the quality of the players. After having watched this group for several years, we've come to the conclusion that they just aren't that good.
They have some definite strengths: they play good defense, holding opponents to a field goal percentage of around 40 percent; they rebound pretty well; and they block shots.
However, they don't shoot the ball well from the outside, and they're often dreadful from the line. They turn the ball over too much (although that's gotten a little better lately). There's not a consistent point guard on the roster. And they often make awful decisions in close games; they just don't seem to have a very good feel for the game. There's enough "there" there to snag an NCAA bid, but we think their flaws are too significant for them to be much of a threat come March.
Arkansas is only 2-3 on the road in the league this year, but with only one really bad loss, at Georgia. Georgia is similar to Kentucky in many ways with the tough defense and somewhat limited offense. Does that hurt the Hogs' chances?
We're not sanguine about the Hogs' chances any time they hit the road. They've been awful away from Bud Walton for years now. During the five years that Stan Heath was at Arkansas, the Hogs were 9-37 on the road. 9-37!
That 2-3 conference road record looks OK, but those two wins came against LSU and Auburn. Arkansas handled the former rather easily, but looked pretty shaky against the latter.
But regardless of where the game takes place, Kentucky's strong defense combined with Arkansas' periodic scoring struggles would have us worried. Of course, the Wildcats average fewer points per game than the Hogs. This could be a grinding, defensive battle, with all of the aesthetic appeal of a Pistons-Knicks match-up from the early 1990s.
Arkansas and Kentucky used to be the biggest rivalry in the SEC, and the game everyone pointed to as the biggest of the year. Florida and Tennessee have changed all that. Do you think the Razorbacks can become Kentucky's biggest SEC foe again?
We certainly hope so -- and we think so. And, our gut feeling is that Pelphrey is the guy who can do it. But, that's all it really is now, a gut feeling.
The ingredients for a return to the national picture are there: top-notch facilities, a spot in a premiere conference, plenty of national TV exposure. In other words, there's no reason that Arkansas shouldn't be able to consistently attract the kind of talent needed to make you guys hate us again.
What type of game do you think the Hawgs will have to bring to tame the Cats? What needs to happen, and what must Arkansas avoid?
Arkansas must keep their turnovers low and must hit their free throws, two things they have struggled to do for much of the year. They have generally been awful from behind the three-point arc, but every now and then will shoot a good percentage from there. That wouldn't hurt on Saturday, either.
Their two best players - Patrick Beverley and Sonny Weems - will probably have to have big games. And they need point guard Gary Ervin to show up. Ervin generally plays out of control, but he apparently acquires some sort of virus every now and then that enables him to be fairly effective.
Darian Townes and/or Charles Thomas have to contain Patterson and also score enough to make Patterson work on the defensive end and to take some pressure off of Weems and Beverley. And finally, given the Wildcats' free-throw success, the Hogs have to keep Kentucky off the line.
Now, watch Arkansas win without any of the above happening.
How do you think Pelphrey will feel coaching against his old school, the one he loved since, well, birth, in the place where his jersey is retired?
Didn't you hear? He just forfeited the game, tearfully explaining that it would have been just too difficult for him to oppose the Wildcats.
Ha, ha. But seriously folks ...
We're sure that Saturday will be an emotional experience for Pelphrey, but our guess is that, ferocious competitor that he is, he will have no difficulty setting emotion aside once the game begins. He will love you guys before and after the game, but for those 40 minutes, he will want nothing more than to beat the Wildcats.
How do Arkansas fans feel about having a coach so closely connected to a rival school?
It's not an issue at all - except for the sneaking suspicion that, if Pelphrey is as successful in Fayetteville as many people think he will be, Kentucky will come calling and he will be unable to resist.
Our view is this: It's been nine years since Arkansas won an NCAA Tournament game. In the 12 seasons before this one, the Hogs lost 10 games or more in 11 of them. In the eight seasons before this one, Arkansas posted losing conference records in six of those years.
Considering all of that, if Pelphrey is successful enough that UK wants to hire him, that's a problem we'd love to have.
Patrick Beverly is having an outstanding year, but Joe Crawford has taken his defense to another level. How do you see that matchup?
If Crawford is matched up against Beverley and brings his defensive A game, that could make for a long day for Patrick. Beverley has suffered something of a sophomore slump offensively this year, but he continues to demonstrate that he's a special player in other ways: At 6'1", he is now the team's leading rebounder, and in one recent stretch, he grabbed at least 10 rebounds in six of seven games.
Beverley loves the spotlight and is surely capable of a big game Saturday, but Crawford's size and strength could be tough for Patrick to handle.
Arkansas has a big size advantage, inside, but you'd have to say Kentucky has the best post player in Patrick Patterson. What do you think the Hogs will have to do to reign him in?
We're hoping for a one-game suspension for Patterson, but short of that, the Hogs will need sterling defensive efforts from Townes and Thomas, both of whom are capable but both of whom are also headcases. Steven Hill is certainly a good shot blocker, but, in a one-on-one match-up, he would have a tough time handling Patterson.
Our extremely layman's guess is that all three will be assigned to Patterson at some point during the game, and the Hogs very well may turn to a zone that puts two of the above three on Patterson when he's in the paint.
What do you think about the chances for the Razorbacks to get into the NCAA tournament if they lose to Kentucky and go on a three game skid? What if they win?
If you look at all of the NCAA Tournament projections, the Hogs would appear to be in pretty solid shape for a bid. However, we feel their season is at a tipping point, with three of their remaining five games on the road, where they always struggle, and with Vanderbilt coming to Bud Walton on March 1.
A three-game skid that starts on Saturday is quite possible and would almost certainly place their tournament chances in extreme jeopardy, as they would have lost five of their last six games by that point and would have a .500 conference record. (Damn. We're bringing ourselves down.)
A win Saturday could be the road-game breakthrough this team needs. We'll be feeling pretty good about our tournament chances if the Hogs walk out of Rupp with a win.
Thanks so much for the Q&A. We've had a blast. Here's to a good game Saturday and best of luck the rest of the way!
Thanks to Steven and John, and all our hopes for a good game by both teams. Here's hoping both Kentucky and Arkansas find their way into the Dance.
You can find their questions and my answers at the Razorback Expats blog.