Arkansas Basketball Still Has One Question Remaining

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 7, 2009

Every team enters the season with a mental checklist.

These are the things we have to do to be successful this season.  These are the goals that we want to accomplish.

After Arkansas pulled off the big upset against Oklahoma, humbling Blake Griffin and the then-undefeated Sooners, Arkansas could check a big accomplishment off their list.

So I decided to take in the encore, Arkansas v. Texas.

Well, like anyone who saw the game last night, Arkansas made quite the statement and it was loud.

The Razorbacks have a wonderful and entertaining high-flying style and players that are tough both physically and mentally.  They withstood a couple of barrages by Texas and still kept their composure, not allowing Texas to pull away and keeping the game in reach.

Texas led by as much as eight in the second half, but Arkansas held them to only four points for the final 3:50 of the game.

The game also had an emphatic exclamation point when Michael Washington, the game's leading scorer, hammered home a dunk while being fouled to put the game away in the final minute en route to a 67-61 victory.

That's two wins over two top-10 teams in the course of a few weeks and Arkansas's seventh straight victory over a top 25 team at home.

Check and double check.

Still, as impressive as the players were or the coach was for wearing that outfit straight out of 1973, the real star last night was the crowd.

You can have your Cameron Indoor, that was one of the loudest arenas I have ever heard in my life.  The fans were knowledgeable and persistent.  So many other schools have fans that may cheer the first minute, but after that it sounds like a library until the team leads the fans to rise from their seats.

Last night, it was quite the opposite.  The fans were raising the level of play for the Razorbacks by creating a truly intimidating atmosphere for the Texas Longhorns and inspiring Arkansas to play with the extreme amount of energy it takes to play under the current system by head coach John Pelphrey.

In total Arkansas is 66-9 at home the past five seasons.

With a crowd like that and an SEC where every team seems to have flaws, the 12-1 Razorbacks look to be in good position to not only make the Big Dance, but maybe make a run.

Indeed if you're a Razorback fan, it's time to be excited...almost.

As good as Arkansas's season has been, they still have one question left and that answer could separate them from a good team to a great team.

Can they win on the road?

Through 13 games, Arkansas has played only two road games and the results...not pretty.

Arkansas's lone loss, a 62-57 defeat to Missouri State that is 7-7 and have dropped four straight. 

Arkansas shot 30 percent in the first half and committed 17 turnovers to only 10 assists.

Their other contest was a less than stellar 79-77 win against South Alabama which required a game-winning shot from the top of the key with 2.9 seconds on the clock.

Both South Alabama and Missouri State are fair mid-major teams.  You may even be able to justify the game against the Jaguars because the Razorbacks were playing Pelphrey's old team and undoubtedly were ready to make a statement.

Nevertheless, Arkansas still has something to prove this season on the road and their first major test will be at Ole Miss.

Of course, that too is nothing new to Razorback fans. 

Arkansas went 2-6 last year on the road in the SEC including four straight losses before a solid run in the SEC tournament guaranteed a slot in the Big Dance.

How can Arkansas improve upon those numbers?

First, Fortson is going to grow up quickly in the SEC, where freshman point guards can be eaten up like a good barbecue lunch.

Fortson is averaging an incredible 7.3 assists per game and overall has 92 assists to only 54 turnovers.

However, when you look deeper into the stats you see that he had nine assists to eight turnovers in his first two road games.  He also had six turnovers against Texas compared to only five assists.

In fact, half the games this season Arkansas has had more turnovers than assists, something that may be okay in the early months, but will simply not suffice in SEC play.

A key to winning any road game is to have a solid point guard for they run the offense.  A rattled point guard's psyche translate to sloppy offense and wasted drives.  His poise can make or break teams in close contests.

You better believe the rest of the SEC and their crowds will try to make Fortson press and if Arkansas gets down in some of these contests it is imperative Fortson keep his composure and not try to get it all back on one possession.

Otherwise he will get caught in the quicksand so many young players fall into and see a five-point deficit turn into a 15-point deficit.

Second, Michael Washington must become a consistent scorer and leader for the young team.

Washington has shown amazing potential so far this year, becoming the first Arkansas player to score two 30 point games since 2002.  His scoring average of 17.4 points per game and over 10 rebounds make him the team leader in both categories.

Still, in the two road games, Washington failed to score in double-digits either time.

Washington is the reigning SEC Player of the Week and if he continues to garner those accolades, Arkansas will be in serious contention for the SEC title.

Finally, Arkansas must continue to play physical basketball and make teams pay at the line.

The Razorbacks may enjoy running up and down the court and making some big threes, but they know how to draw contact and get to the line.

Only twice this season has Arkansas shot fewer than 20 free throws in a game.  Against Oklahoma, they went to the line a whopping 43 times.

However, Arkansas has to convert when they get these opportunities.  The Razorbacks leading scorers, Washington and Fortson are shooting a combined percentage of less than 60.

In fact, Arkansas only has two players hitting over 70 percent of their free throws (with a minimum of 25 attempted).

Road victories usually require clutch free-throw shooting because these games typically come down to the wire.  If Arkansas has their best players struggling at the stripe, it could foretell another anxious March for the fans.

So congratulations Arkansas on the season so far, you have certainly impressed me and the rest of the country at the halfway point.

Still, the question remains.