FAYETTEVILLE, ARK – You can see it unfold during the Missouri game.
While Arkansas added another disappointing loss to its ledger, for the first time all season, the Razorback team of the season could be seen as something other than first out on the weekend in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite victories against relatively weak opponents during the fall, this was the first time players began to immerse themselves in clearly defined roles, putting in the dirty work, staying relentless on defense and playing with renewed confidence all at the same time.
While errors and turnovers got the best of Arkansas at Missouri, that wasn’t the case against Ole Miss as the Razorbacks cruised to a 69-57 win in a Bud Walton that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
Arkansas was charged with just 16 personal violations, less than half the number in Columbia on Wednesday. The Razorbacks also gave up only 11 turnovers while forcing 17 from Ole Miss.
That’s nearly half the number of pig sales that surrendered on Wednesday night.
Jordan Walsh II against Missouri realized that by leaving wide open his three-and-out opponents were also leaving themselves open to driving drills and short jumps, Arkansas instantly became a better team.
Confidence is back and Walsh is the weapon he was meant to be. By the time Ole Miss rolls into town for his early morning exchange, he’s his old self again. Walsh had 13 points, seven rebounds, a steal, and most importantly, one fumble.
It was like unleashing a new power in a video game, except it’s something Walsh has had all along. He just needed it to click.
Speaking of clicking, it finally clicked on Davonte Davis that he really is the leader of this team and that he needs to accept this role in every sense of the word.
For most of the season, he was explaining to this team of new players where they were supposed to be and what to expect in certain places and situations. Still, Davis hasn’t combined that he needs to summon his inner JD Notae and be the guy who drops daggers here and there when his teammates need it most.
Against Missouri, every time the crowd was boisterous, Davis called the ball and never hesitated to silence them.
He didn’t think. He just fired.
As a result, Davis developed a full game. He’s now a three-point threat, a midrange threat, a threat to go rack and also a threat to go around everyone and find an open guy that no one sees.
The problem is that no one is quite thinking at the level that Davis does on these plays, so they aren’t ready for a pass to hit them in hands no one expected. However, other Razorbacks get better at being ready at all times and always expecting a pass from Davis no matter how likely it may be.
While Arkansas struggled in the first half against Ole Miss, Davis played after play to keep them in it. He’s gone to that other level that he’d only glancing through his years as a Razorback and seems to be becoming more permanent.
With Walsh and Davis getting their groove on, and Machi Mitchell’s confidence and versatility growing at center position, Anthony Black finally settles into a natural position as a very dangerous role player.
He focuses on distributing the ball while still going to the edge when he sees an opening. In this role, Black is always a threat to score, but he no longer carries the burden of feeling like he has to force the outcome.
A rookie guard is most effective when he can let the game come to him, which is exactly what happened both in Missouri and against Ole Miss.
Black had 17 points, eight assists and five steals on Saturday and didn’t feel anything forced.
If those roles continue to be defined with more clarity and a chip board, Pinion and Derrian Ford with good minutes when they’re on the ground, Arkansas can piece this together in time for the NCAA Tournament press and run.
Saturday was simply important for the much needed win. However, if Arkansas shows improvement Wednesday against LSU to avenge a loss and can steal one, or at least be super competitive against Baylor on Saturday, it will be the mark Razorback fans hope for every season.
At this point, everything else will be up for grabs.
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