Sunday, January 4, 2009

Arkansas Has Rare Opportunity Against Texas

I must admit I was disappointed, but now I realize it simply means a greater opportunity.

My alma mater, the University of Arkansas, pulled off its most significant basketball win in recent times by beating fourth-ranked (and previously unbeaten) Oklahoma, 96-88, on December 30.

But when the next polls came out, Arkansas hadn't received any votes for the Top 25 — and OU hadn't budged from its position at #4.

Now, the Razorbacks have an opportunity to beat two Top 10 basketball programs within a week of each other — and, hopefully, break into the Top 25 in the process.

Eighth-ranked Texas (11-2) faces unranked Arkansas (11-1) on ESPN at 8:05 p.m. (Central).

If you grew up in Arkansas before the Razorbacks left the old Southwest Conference in the early 1990s, any competition between Arkansas and Texas will bring back memories of autumn afternoons on the gridiron or winter nights in the fieldhouse.

When I was a little boy, Arkansas-Texas was significant only in football. Once football season was over, neither school seemed to exist until September rolled around.

But, when I was in junior high school, something amazing started happening. Arkansas and Texas became competitive in basketball and, by the time I was in high school, the Razorbacks were competing on a national level, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in 30 years.

And, in my college years, the Razorbacks were always playing in the NCAA Tournament.

They battled Larry Bird and Indiana State to the very last second for a trip to the Final Four.

They knocked off Louisville, the defending national champion, with a midcourt shot at the buzzer — years before such a shot would count for three points.

And every year, it seemed, the Razorbacks and the Longhorns met in the SWC's postseason tournament — which inevitably gave the schools three meetings in basketball in a single season.

As a writer from Sports Illustrated observed at the time, that was two more shootouts in a season than the schools' fabled football coaches, Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles, ever had, even in their best years.

The schools haven't faced each other regularly in any sport for 16 or 17 years now. But this academic year is resembling the days of my youth — last fall, the football teams met in Austin, Texas (in a game that was postponed for a couple of weeks by Hurricane Ike), and, on Tuesday night, the basketball teams will face each other in Fayetteville, Ark.

As familiar as the scene appears to an old Razorback fan like myself, I know it won't last. Both teams will revert rapidly to their current roles, and the memories of the old SWC will recede.

Texas opens its Big 12 schedule Saturday at home against 10-4 Iowa State. After that, the Longhorns have a couple of challenging road games, at 13-1 Oklahoma on January 12 and at 10-4 Texas Tech on January 17, followed by a home game against an old football rival, 13-1 Texas A&M on January 24.

For Arkansas, the SEC schedule also begins Saturday. The Razorbacks host 9-5 Mississippi State, then they also must go on a two-game road trip — to 9-5 Ole Miss on January 14 and 12-2 Florida on January 17. Arkansas will be at home on January 24 against Auburn (10-4).

In the meantime, both teams come into the game with certain things they do much better than the other.

Texas, for example, is one of the best teams in the nation when it comes to blocking shots. The Longhorns average 6.3 per game, which is 13th in the country. Senior Connor Atchley is responsible for nearly one-third of those blocked shots.

The Longhorns are 43rd in the nation in rebounds, averaging 43.2. Junior Damion James averages 8.4, and sophomore Gary Johnson accounts for 7.4.

Texas also ranks 64th in avoiding turnovers, averaging 12.8 per game.

The Razorbacks are 12th in the nation in scoring, averaging 82.7 points per game — they're 39th in field goals made (27.8 — same as UConn and a full field goal more than Texas).

But Arkansas is way down the list in average field goal attempts per game (96th while Texas is 73rd). And lots of field goals made combined with not too many attempts means the Razorbacks are in the Top 50 in field goal percentage (47.4%).

The Razorbacks have always been solid in scoring, though. But an encouraging development for long-time Arkansas fans is clear improvement in both free-throw shooting and rebounding.

Currently, the Razorbacks are sixth in the nation in free throws made (20.1). That may be due, in part, to the job they've done at drawing fouls. They're second in the nation in free throw attempts (30.7). Now, I'll grant you that their 65% accuracy rate isn't one of the nation's best, but it's not bad when you consider that they're attempting nearly 31 free throws per game.

And it's a distinct improvement over what the Razorbacks did from the free-throw line when I was a student.

Arkansas is also 17th in rebounding (44.9), thanks in large part to junior Michael Washington, who is 18th in the nation (10.4).

Freshman Courtney Fortson is 16th in the nation in assists (6.4), and he had one of his best games of the season against Oklahoma, accounting for 10 that night. As a team, Arkansas is 69th in assists, with an average of 15.3.

Can the Razorbacks do it? They'll be playing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd and a national TV audience.

As someone who's seen more Razorback basketball games than he can recall, I say this — it can be done.

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