FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson’s goal is to get his team to wear down opponents in the second half.
He wants to harass with constant pressure, push the ball up the floor on offense, knock down shots and lean on depth to outlast teams in the final minutes.
It hasn’t exactly gone to plan this season. In fact, Arkansas has been the one to stumble on numerous occasions in the final minutes of close games. But it doesn’t stop Anderson from seeing another opportunity against Vanderbilt today.
“We have got to get into that bench,” Anderson said.
Arkansas hopes to break through on the road for the first time this season by breaking down the Commodores in Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt (13-8, 5-4 in Southeastern Conference) is relying on just seven scholarship players to navigate through conference play and the Razorbacks (14-8, 3-6) understand that taking advantage of depth issues will be key to grabbing their second straight win.
It won’t be easy. Vanderbilt has adjusted to their limitations pretty well.
The Commodores — who started 1-4 in SEC play — have now won four straight after beating Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The 64-60 victory against the Volunteers was, arguably, the biggest of the season.
“I’m proud of my team for competing the way they’re competing,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said earlier this week. “We certainly have a lot of areas we need to get better in, but we feel like we’ve made progress since the beginning of league play. So hopefully we can keep that up.”
Vanderbilt’s recent success has been one of the best stories in the SEC this season.
Three Vanderbilt players left the team in the offseason. One more — leading scorer Kedren Johnson — was suspended for the season. If that wasn’t enough, starting center Josh Henderson suffered a season-ending injury early in the year and Eric McClellan, who was the team’s leading scorer, was dismissed just before SEC play.
Stallings said his team was struggling with being short-handed when SEC play began, but has adjusted. Vanderbilt has worked to avoid getting in foul trouble and committing turnovers. It has helped three Commodores — Dai-Jon Parker, Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom — average more than 37 minutes a game.
“They’re three guys that are really, really well conditioned athletes,” Stallings said. “So playing the big minutes I don’t think affects them as much as it would other types of guys. … They’ve been terrific in terms of their toughness and in terms of their effort and their energy and their leadership and things like that.
“They’re giving us all that they have to give and that’s all we can ask for.”
Anderson is impressed, saying Vanderbilt is “finding ways to win” despite the adversity. He wants his team to take notice, hoping Arkansas will match the Commodores’ resilience as the Hogs try to end their road woes.
“We want to make depth an issue,” Anderson said. “And how do you do that? Well, we’ve got to get out and make them work on both ends. Offensively, defensively. Execute defensively as well as offensively. We’ve got to make shots.”
It’s never easy in Memorial Gym, which has been a challenging place for opponents because of its unusual configuration. The Razorbacks have had some success, though, going 4-7 against the Commodores in Nashville since joining the SEC.
It included an 89-78 win during the 2010-11 season, when former Razorbacks Rotnei Clarke (36 points) and Michael Sanchez (20) carried the scoring load. But Arkansas lost twice to Vanderbilt last season, suffering a 67-49 loss in Memorial Gym and a 75-72 loss in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Outside of Bobby Portis’ 35 points against Alabama, the Razorbacks struggled offensively in the 65-58 win against Alabama on Wednesday night. Anderson expects a challenge again because of Vanderbilt’s defense, which has helped the Commodores successfully slow the pace.
Vanderbilt has not allowed more than 60 points during its four-game win streak.
“They mix and match their defense, whether it be a zone or man,” Anderson said. “They spread the floor. They’ve got the game in their rhythm. They’ve slowed the game down. They’re averaging 61 points and any time you play that type of game that favors them. They’ve got guys that can knock down three-point shots.
“They’re just a team that’s playing well together.”
Anderson is hoping he can say the same about his team tonight.
“We want to have an opportunity to go and steal one,” Anderson said. “We haven’t done it this year. It seems like we’ve gotten close in some games, and hopefully we’ll play better in this game.”