FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forward Coty Clarke can’t help himself.
He doesn’t want to get into foul trouble. The senior tries his best to avoid it. But for whatever reason, Clarke just can’t seem to steer clear of a first half spent predominantly on Arkansas’ bench because of two personal fouls.
“It’s just a bad habit,” Clarke said. “I can’t help it. I try to. When I feel like I’m not out there playing aggressive, that’s not me. I try not to foul, but it’s just a habit.”
The issue is the only blemish for the team captain, whose productive play has been a big part of Arkansas’ recent success despite his limited minutes. The Razorbacks (16-9, 5-7 in Southeastern Conference) hope the success continues against South Carolina (10-15, 3-9 in SEC) in Bud Walton Arena at 8 p.m. Wednesday night.
Clarke’s value to the Hogs was evident last week, when he scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 40 minutes over two games. He had 12 points in the loss at Missouri, then followed with a 16-point effort in the win against LSU last Saturday.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said it’s a clear sign of Clarke’s impact on the Razorbacks when he’s on the floor. He just wonders what it would be like if Clarke — who is averaging 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds a game — could stay out there a little longer by avoiding early foul trouble.
“I think it’s just careless, just being lazy,” Anderson said of Clarke’s early foul issues. “The fouls that he gets are like touch fouls early on and it’s amazing that he plays so much more aggressive when he has three fouls. … So I think it’s more just going out and getting into the flow of the game. Not necessarily get those cheap fouls, those cheap fouls where he is reaching come back to haunt him.”
Clarke shook his head when asked about the foul trouble after Monday’s practice.
He’s well aware of the issue and said it dates back to when he was young. It seems that aggressiveness has always been part of his game. But Clarke said it goes hand-in-hand with his eagerness to make a play.
“I always think that I can get that ball, no matter what,” Clarke said. “I’m going to try to get it. With the rules being the way they are, sometimes they help, and sometimes they hurt. Like last year, I probably could get away with a few of those. They could have been deflections or steals. But now they’re calling them fouls.
“I’ve got to take it and stop putting my team in a bad bind.”
Clarke picked up two fouls within the first five minutes at Missouri and spent the next 13 minutes on Arkansas’ bench. Anderson opted to go back to him late in the half and the gamble paid off. He knocked down a pair of three-pointers that helped Arkansas eventually trim a 9-point deficit to six points by halftime.
There was a similar problem against LSU when Clarke picked up his second foul at the 16:34 mark in the first half and went to the bench again. But Anderson left Clark on the bench for the rest of the half against the Tigers.
Clarke returned in the second half and immediately picked up his third foul with 18:32 to go. But he handled it well the rest of the game, scoring 16 points in 18 minutes in the second half. It included three three-pointers that helped Arkansas win.
“I kept my focus and if I would’ve been negative about it I probably wouldn’t of did what I did,” Clarke said about his second-half performance. “I just kept a positive mind and kept my faith and I was able to make plays when I went back out there and kept the energy. I didn’t let that bring me down.”
Anderson said there’s no question the team captain has been a calming force for the Razorbacks this season. He has teamed with Bobby Portis to give Arkansas a solid starting frontline. Anderson believes Clarke’s strength is his rebounding, but the forward has shown his ability to step out and play on the perimeter as well.
Clarke went 3-for-4 from three against LSU, taking advantage of a defense that watched him go 1-for-5 from long range in the first meeting between the teams. Clarke is 17-for-36 (47.2 percent) from long range this season and 14-for-28 in SEC games.
“It depends on what the game calls for and whether or not I need to be in attack mode, if my jump shot is falling that night,” Clarke said. “And just being confident. I’m fine with it. But if it calls for it, I take what’s given to me. If the defense is giving it to me, I’ll knock it down. If they don’t, I’ll find another way to make a play.”
Arkansas guard Ky Madden said Clarke’s performance through the foul trouble was vital for the Razorbacks, who won for the third time in four games.
“We needed that in the first half, but he couldn’t because of foul trouble,” Madden said. “We expected that out of him. He’s a good player and a good part of this team.”
Anderson said he just wishes Clarke “could play a whole game” because he’s a tough matchup for opponents.
So does Clarke, who has committed a team-high 78 fouls this season and has fouled out of three games. He said sitting on the sideline is frustrating. He listens to coaches, teammates and people behind the bench saying he has to quit fouling.
Clarke said he’s doing his best to heed their advice, but refuses to become a passive player as he tries to lead Arkansas into the postseason.
“I just adjust during a game,” Clarke said. “I always give myself two gambles. I’ve got five (fouls). I give myself two gambles, so if they call it, that’s one. And if they call the other one, I don’t have anymore. I can’t do it anymore.”