Coming off a well-deserved three days’ rest, the Oklahoma Sooners (6-1) will travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks (3-3) Tuesday evening. It will be the Sooners 6th road game so far—they are 4-1 on the road in the early stages of the season. That’s as many wins as they Sooners has all of last season when they finished 4-11 away from home.
Andrew Fitzgerald and the Oklahoma Sooners prepare for Arkansas (Photo from Soonersports.com)
Tuesday night’s matchup is much more than just a road game however, it could end up being a measure for just how good Oklahoma can be. Though 6-1, the Sooners have yet to prove themselves and earn a marquee win. A win on the road against a talented Razorback bunch would certainly be the type of statement that could thrust them back into the national limelight.
On the flip side, a struggling Arkansas squad also needs a win in a big way. Having dropped three straight games, the most recent at home to Syracuse, a win here could get the Razorbacks back on track. That Syracuse win was an anomaly too; nothing ever comes easy in Bud Walton arena, where the Razorbacks went 17-4 last season.
Oklahoma has won seven of the past nine matchups with the Razorbacks.
Tuesday night is important to both teams for different reasons, but other than that the two foes are near facsimiles of each other. Once annual juggernauts finishing near or at the top of their conference and almost always locks for the tournament, both have since fallen into a rut. Now they are mediocre, middle of the pack teams, neither having made the dance since 2008-2009.
In the 2011 offseason, Oklahoma gave way to the pressure, firing head coach Jeff Capel and hiring Lon Kruger. In the same offseason, Arkansas fired John Phelpry and hired Mike Anderson in an effort to revive the program. Now, with both coaches entering their second seasons, the vibe around the programs to enter the season is primarily upbeat, and there’s a feeling that both could make turnarounds.
There are even resemblances on the court. Both teams appear to have tremendous depth, being able to go eight or even nine deep without skipping a beat. Fatigue is rarely a factor for these two squads. Eight players average 15 or more minutes for the Razorbacks and Lon Kruger regularly rotates 10 guys for the Sooners.
Tuesday evening could serve as a barometer for the progress of the two rebuilding programs. Is one farther along than the other?
Sooner to Watch: Steven Pledger
Can Steven Pledger break out of his slump? (Photo from SoonerSports.com)
Pledger is the leading returning scorer in the Big 12 this season, averaging 16.2 PPG last season. However, the senior has struggled to find his mojo so far this year. Pledger’s numbers have taken a hit, and he is averaging just 10.1 PPG through seven games and shooting a less efficient percentage from three. However, he has a habit of stepping up in big road games. His career high of 38 points came in an overtime win against Iowa State in Ames in his sophomore season. Being a senior, he might see an increased role down the stretch as the Sooners lean on experience to close out the game. With Mike Anderson’s style of play should allow for lots of transition threes, an area Pledger excels in. If his shot is falling it could be a big scoring night for Pledger, and just the type of game he needs to get out of his slump.
Razorback to Watch: B.J. Young
Young is a guaranteed threat to score. His propensity for getting to the rim more than makes up for his lackluster shooting ability, and he can go for 20+ on any given night. He already has done so thrice this season, including a 29 point outburst in a loss to Arizona State, in which he shot 12-24 from the floor. The entire offense revolves around him. If Oklahoma can hold him under 20, a win is more likely, but that’s easier said than done.
Marshawn Powell- Returning from injury last season, Powell is making an impact in the paint for far this year. He’s averaging 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds through six games and is shooting 46.7% from the field. He is outsized by the OU bigs, standing at only 6-foot-7, so the Sooners should take advantage of that and attack the glass for the boards.
Mardracus Wade- Probably the biggest threat to score from three, Wade can fill it up too if he gets it going. He is one of seven players averaging between 8.2 and 5.2 points for Arkansas.
Coty Clarke- Rotnei Clarke is playing for Butler now, but in comes Coty. Clarke’s role on this team is the sixth man. He comes in off the bench to provide the extra punch needed, averaging 82. Points and 6.8 rebounds a contest.
Rashad Madden- Explosive guards. The Razorbacks are full of em’. Madden is no exception, he is athletic and can finish at the rim. His only knock is that he is somewhat inconsistent, but that could just come with being a young player. Nevertheless, you never know when he is going to have a good game and he should be watched.
Hunter Mickelson- Standing at 6-foot-10, Mickelson looks to pose the biggest threat to the Sooners down low. Despite his height, he only grabs 2.5 boards per game this season, but is a glass cleaner and averaged 2.2 BPG last year.
“40 minutes of Hell”
The Razorbacks will look to implement their infamous “40 minutes of Hell” gameplan against Oklahoma. Basically this style of play has one rule: run. Arkansas will look to run at every chance they get and no matter how small that window of opportunity is. They will create fast break opportunities for themselves and will hope to wear down the Sooners with their speed.
Despite continuously running, the Razorbacks are one of the most efficient teams in the country in controlling the ball, ranking 10th in the entire NCAA in turnovers with just 10.5 per game. The fast pace doesn’t bode so well for opposing teams however, as Arkansas forces 18.7 turnovers from its opponents, good for 11th in the nation.
One interesting fact about the Razorbacks is that they seem to perform better in the first half than in the second. Their 43.3 PPG in the first half ranks second in the country, but in the second half they average only 39, dropping them to 63rd. Overall Arkansas ranks 16th in scoring with 82.2 PPG, however, they also give up 73.7 points a contest.
Three Keys to a Sooner Victory
-Force Jumpers: Arkansas is not a good jump shooting team. They prefer the much easier tactic of taking the ball inside for a dunk or a layup, and it’s no wonder—they shoot an atrocious 26% from three. If the Sooners can limit transition opportunities and cause the Razorbacks to take a lot more jumpers, it could be the difference between a win and a loss.
-Win the Rebounding Battle: The Sooners have either tied or won the rebounding battle in each of their six wins this season. When they are winning the battle of the boards, they are winning the game too. Oklahoma should be able to take advantage of a rather undersized (with the exception of Mickelson) Razorback squad. If Romero Osby (7.1 RPG) and Amath M’Baye (6.9 RPG) continue to play phsyical the Sooners will outrebound Arkansas.
-Good Transition Offense: This one could actually bode well for the Sooners, who have struggled in the half court this season. Playing the Razorbacks, it’s inevitable that you are going to have fast break opportunities, so you might as well take advantage of them. The trick is going to be taking care of the ball, and finishing the transition buckets. By doing this the Sooners will put themselves in a better position to win.
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