Arkansas guards B.J. Young and Julysses Nobles were obviously down during the Razorbacks’ postgame press conference Thursday night, and who could blame them?
B.J. Young (11) has been Arkansas' leading scorer in each of the past five games.
During the most critical stretch of the season, the Hogs had just suffered their third consecutive loss – the second straight at home, a place where they were 17-0 until recently. It was also their fifth loss in six games, with their average margin of defeat 17.6 points.
Alabama came into Thursday night’s game minus two starters – and a third went down with an injury midway through the first half – and the Razorbacks led by as many as 12 with a little less than 13 minutes off the clock. Yet the Crimson Tide got on a roll, started playing tough defense and walked out of Bud Walton Arena a 79-68 winner.
But there’s no time look back. Arkansas (17-11, 5-8 SEC) must push on with three games remaining in the regular season. Next up is Auburn (14-13, 4-9), a team that’s also suffered its share of adversity. The teams meet Saturday at 3 p.m. Central at Auburn Arena in a game televised by the SEC Network.
“It’s a long season,” Young said Thursday night, his body language and tone of voice during the news conference reflecting his disappointment. “You have ups and downs during the season, but you’ve got to fight it out till the last game. And whatever happens after that just happens. We’re just going to keep fighting. That’s all we can do.”
Barring a remarkable run through the SEC Tournament on March 8-11 in New Orleans, the Razorbacks won’t make the NCAA Tournament. After Thursday night’s loss at home, there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll get in the NIT, either.
But the Hogs, who are tied for eighth in the SEC standings, can certainly help their chances with these next three games.
“We’ll see what we’re made out of,” Coach Mike Anderson said after Thursday night’s loss. “That’s what I want to find out, what we’re made out of. There’s still a lot of basketball and a lot that’s out there for this basketball team. To me, that’s the positive.”
The negative is that the short-handed Razorbacks seem to have hit a wall. Anderson has said his teams usually play some of their better basketball this time of year. But these Hogs, who have been limited to eight or nine scholarship players most of the season, have been playing their worst.
Mardracus Wade scored 11 points in 35 minutes Thursday night.
Anderson thinks part of it is confidence. Part of it, too, is fatigue.
Arkansas will have a light practice today with the short turnaround for Saturday’s game against Auburn. The players could use the rest, especially sophomore guard Mardracus Wade, the SEC leader in three-point shooting percentage who played 35 minutes Thursday, and Young, the team’s leading scorer who played 32 minutes.
“I think everybody’s probably tired at this point in the season, and everybody’s probably hitting that wall,” said Young, who is averaging 26.0 points in the past two games and 15.4 for the season. “But it’s a matter of breaking through and keep playing.”
Keeping their heads up during this slump is “going to be the ultimate challenge for our guys,” Anderson said.
“They’ve lost some games and they’ve lost a little confidence,” Anderson said. “But in basketball and in this business you’ve got to have (a short) memory.
“So we get a chance to go and do something we haven’t done, and that is go on the road and play against an Auburn team we played here, who was a physical, aggressive team. They play well at home so it’s a challenge for our basketball team.”
Arkansas beat Auburn 56-53 on Jan. 25 at Bud Walton Arena after Tigers senior forward Kenny Gabriel missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Gabriel had 13 points and eight rebounds in that game. He’s averaging 12.1 points – second on the team behind junior guard Frankie Sullivan (12.3) – leads the Tigers and is seventh in the SEC in rebounding with 7.6 per game, and is third in the conference in blocks (2.4 per game).
But his status for Saturday’s game is unknown after he suffered a bruised back in a 63-47 loss at No. 11 Florida on Tuesday.
It’s the latest in a string of injuries for the Tigers this season, including sophomore guard Josh Langford’s concussion that has kept him out the past seven games.
Anderson called Gabriel “probably one of the best athletes in our league.” But there are other Tigers who can do damage, and Auburn is 13-2 at home this season.
“They’re athletic. They’ve got size. They’ve got athletic ability,” Anderson said. “Frankie Sullivan is a guy that can really shoot the basketball. They’re playing better.
“They do a great job of rebounding the basketball. They play zone. They play man. They mix it up. So you’ve got to be able to make shots. You’ve got to be able to make plays.”
Arkansas hasn’t made enough plays lately when it mattered most, but the Hogs have to focus on the future, not the past.
“We’ve just got to go play, man,” Nobles said. “We’ve got to put this behind us like B.J. said, and we’ve just got to go play.”