FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson wants his team to disrupt opponents defensively, harassing them into turnovers that led to easy buckets.
There’s a fine line in being aggressive and overly aggressive, however. It’s one the Razorbacks struggled to figure out during the Las Vegas Invitational.
“Our guys have got to learn to play defense without fouling,” Anderson said.
Arkansas (3-2) is hoping those problems can be corrected as it prepares for another big test in sixth-ranked Syracuse (4-0) on Friday night.
The Orange will be traveling to Fayetteville for the first time in school history and the programs will meet for just the second time. Anderson said Arkansas’ hopes for an upset will depend on how well it can clean things up defensively.
Arkansas committed 27 personal fouls in its first game against Arizona State, then 29 more against Wisconsin. It led to foul trouble for several Razorbacks and also gave opponents easy opportunities at the free-throw line. The Sun Devils and Badgers combined to shoot 74 free throws against the Razorbacks.
“There was 38 in one game and 36 in the other,” Anderson said. “You are not going to beat many people unless you get to the free-throw line that many times.
“So, defensively, I thought we did some good things but we have got to curtail the fouling from being overly aggressive.”
Foul trouble put key players on the bench and thinned Arkansas’ depth. Forward Marshawn Powell and guard Ky Madden fouled out of the Wisconsin loss after 19 points. Forward Coty Clarke fouled out in 12 minutes against Arizona State.
“I’ve got to stop committing silly fouls, stop reaching so much,” Powell said. “I took myself out of those games and made it hard on myself and the team.”
Anderson doesn’t want his team to lose its defensive identity, but said improvement will be important against Syracuse. He said the Orange will present a challenge because of attacking guards like Michael Carter-Williams.
Anderson said the challenge is to be aggressive, but smart.
“We got some unnecessary fouls,” Anderson said. “Fouls that were 94-feet away from the basket. You are just trying to disrupt people from what they want to do offensively. But we had some touch fouls even in the half court.”
Arkansas is shooting 27.8 percent (98 of 139) from behind the 3-point line through five games. Anderson said there’s one way his team can improve: Shoot more.
“I don’t think we have shot enough three-pointers,” Anderson said. “So I told our guys we have got to go ahead and take shots and take good shots. That’s all about getting in rhythm and playing the style we play each and every day.”
The Razorbacks only attempted eight three-pointers in the Wisconsin loss, which came a day after going 4-for-20 against Arizona State. Anderson said Arkansas must have success shooting from long-range Friday night against Syracuse’s zone defense.
Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell – who is 5-for-18 from three-point range so far this season – plans to do his part off the bench Friday.
“I plan on coming and knocking down some shots,” Bell said. “Spread out the zone and get them over-rotating and hopefully get us some easy buckets inside.”
Arkansas and Syracuse will play for the first time since 1995, when the Razorbacks grabbed a 96-94 overtime win in the NCAA Tournament in Austin, Texas.
Anderson was an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff at the time. Scotty Thurman, who is now Arkansas’ director of student-athlete development, scored 27 points.
This season’s game is part of the SEC-Big East Challenge. Arkansas was awarded a home game this season after traveling to play Connecticut in the challenge last year.
“It should be an electric atmosphere,” Anderson said. “You are playing against a program that has won championships, a national championship. So it will be great for our fans, great for our players, our students.”