FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson’s system is centered around an aggressive, swarming defense designed to make opponents uncomfortable.
Suffocating ball handlers for 94 feet and leaning on bench depth to keep it going for 40 minutes has led to plenty of wins this season. But as Arkansas continues through the final portion of the regular season, it’s clear there’s an obvious drawback.
Key players like forward Marshawn Powell have struggled with foul trouble this season. Especially on the road. The results haven’t been good for the Razorbacks, who fell to 1-9 outside the state with a 71-54 loss at Florida.
“It makes a big difference,” Anderson said of Powell’s problems. “It’s very evident that when Marshawn is not on the floor that we’re a different type of team. There are some things that we can get away with at home, but on the road you are talking about a young basketball team and he is your most experienced guy.”
Arkansas (17-10, 8-6 in SEC) will try to avoid foul trouble on the road once again when it plays at LSU (16-9, 7-7 in SEC) on Wednesday night. It comes four days after Arkansas’ two starting forwards — Powell and Clarke — spent most of the first half on the bench against Florida after falling into early issues. The duo also was limited in the first half of last Wednesday’s win against Georgia because of foul trouble.
Clarke said it’s no secret the Razorbacks must find a way to stay on the floor.
“A lot of times they let us play through it at home,” Clarke said. “On the road it’s tick for tack. So you’ve got to adjust how you’re playing defensively. You have to play aggressive, but adjust to some of the things that we may get at home.”
Powell’s early exit in road games has been the biggest frustration for Anderson and the Razorbacks. It started in the SEC opener, when two quick fouls took Powell out of action most of the first half en route to a scoreless opponents.
Powell admits one of his biggest issues has been being called for “touch fouls” on the road. But a new problem cropped up at Florida. He collected back-to-back offensive fouls against a defense packed into the paint trying to stop him.
“It’s hard man,” said Powell, who had a conversation with Anderson about the foul issues before Monday’s practice. “Especially because most of the time we get in foul trouble with touch fouls. Little things. Real, real little things.”
Anderson said the key for his team is being smart while playing aggressively.
It’s no secret the Razorbacks are still trying to grasp what it entails.
Take one sequence against Georgia last Wednesday. Powell turned in a big defensive play with a blocked shot. The ball fell into another player’s hands and Powell tried to reach in to swipe it away. The whistle blew and two free throws were awarded.
“I should’ve just let him have the layup,” said Powell, who added Anderson was upset with his decision to reach in after the blocked shot. “But it was a tough point in the game. I felt like giving them that easy bucket would give them momentum.
“So it comes down to decision making. Whether to give something up or to just stay there and play defense without reaching. … It’s hard.”
But Anderson said it’s not just a fine line between being aggressive or overly aggressive. Defensive fundamentals play a big role in what happens as well.
“I think that is where a player has to understand positioning,” Anderson said. “Positioning is a big part of defense. Use your feet, not your hands. You want to be aggressive, but not to the point where you are just trying to take the ball. Our defense is not geared toward that. It’s not feast or famine even when we pressure or double up. We are not trying to steal the basketball. We are just trying to disrupt.”
Arkansas leads the SEC in forced turnovers (17.6 a game). It also ranks 12th in personal fouls a game (19.9) just behind South Carolina and Auburn (20).
The number is especially high outside of familiar surroundings, where the Razorbacks have committed an average of 22 fouls in their 10 road or neutral site games. Arkansas is averaging 18.7 fouls a game in its 17 home games.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, to go from being really aggressive and getting some touch calls on us,” said guard Kikko Haydar, who has committed 13 personal fouls in 45 minutes the past three games. “We just need to have to do a better job of adjusting. Whether how hard it is or not, we just have to do it.”
Powell — who has been limited to 18 points in 35 minutes the past two games — said he can’t think about the fouls too much tonight, though. Doing so could be dangerous as well because easing up could make the Hogs “lose me, in a sense.”
It’s the fine line the Razorbacks walk on a nightly basis under Anderson.
“You’ve got to be smart,” Clarke said. “There’s playing very aggressive and there’s playing smart and aggressive. You’ve got to pick and choose what you’re going to do at the moment. But at the time when you try to go with your instincts, you maybe can’t do it because of the way the game is being called.”