Like Yankees and revenooers, college basketball has never stood for much in the Ozark state. So it was interesting to observe in Little Rock last week just how far Arkansas has come in the indoor sport. On Thursday night the unbeaten, 17th-ranked Razorbacks played Memphis State, before a Barton Coliseum sellout 8,193, the largest crowd ever to see the team in the state. But, alas, the game also showed that Arkansas has a way to go, because it played in sloppy fashion and lost 69-62.
If Arkansas, the co-favorite with Houston for the Southwest Conference title, represents the best the league has to offer, then it is still lagging behind the established powers of the college game. But sure as Brown vs. the Board, the conference and the Razorbacks are moving toward parity with all deliberate speed.
When 40-year-old Coach Eddie Sutton arrived from Creighton two years ago, Arkansas had seven losing records in its last nine seasons, and hardly a man alive remembered—or cared to remember—that the Razorbacks had dominated the SWC from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s. Sutton did not know it either, but he had come to like the Razorbacks' potential. He admits he might have come to Arkansas in 1970, but after sampling the atmosphere around Fayetteville he decided he would be much better off staying in Omaha. "The school wasn't ready to make a commitment to basketball then," Sutton says. "The thinking was still all-football. But when I came back for another interview four years later I saw a big change. Athletic Director [and recently resigned head football coach] Frank Broyles told me the school was finally anxious for basketball success, too. It was willing to upgrade the facilities and rally the state behind the program. I'd always considered myself a builder and I saw that, with work, Arkansas could surely do in basketball what it had done in football."
It has not taken Sutton long. He was 17-9 his first year, finishing second in the league ("We should have won," he says) and winning conference Coach of the Year honors. Last season the Razor-backs improved to 19-9. Among the victories, the most for a Razorback team in 34 seasons, was a stunning 92-47 demolition of Houston in the Cougars' first SWC game. This year, with a team that is not mature, deep, big or overly talented, Sutton had directed Arkansas to eight straight wins before coming up against Memphis State. Significantly, two of the Razorbacks' victims were traditional Big Eight powers Kansas (67-63) and Kansas State (80-65). The triumph at Lawrence over the Jayhawks was the first by any SWC team.
"I think we can accomplish in basketball what Alabama has begun to do," says Sutton. "In fact, our whole league is beginning to upgrade basketball the way the Southeastern Conference has done. The fans here are real excited, even though I don't feel we've accomplished all that much on the court. We've built enthusiasm and acceptance among the people in the state. They are beginning to follow us and understand the game better. They actually applauded when we went into our delay game to protect an eight-point lead at home against Kansas State. A year ago they wouldn't have understood what was going on."
The football-oriented fans are buying tickets almost as quickly as they are learning the nuances of basketball. This year, for the first time in its history, the Arkansas basketball program will make money. It was that kind of bottom-line success that helped to get Sutton promoted to Assistant Athletic Director last July. Fayetteville's Barnhill Fieldhouse and Barton Coliseum are sold out for all remaining home games. And Barnhill is undergoing a renovation that will add 6,000 seats next year, increasing its capacity to almost 10,000. Sutton is lucky, too, in that most of the fans are accustomed to the wide-open spaces of football stadiums and don't realize that many of the new seats are too far away to see exactly what is going on. But then, they may be enthusiastic enough not to really care. So far it's just been a lot of whooping and hollering and "Whooo, Pig Sooey!"
The Razorbacks are a team worth hollering about, even if they are full of puzzling contradictions. They have, for example, only one outstanding shooter, yet because of careful shot selection Arkansas' field-goal accuracy is 55%. In addition, the team's modest size belies the fact that it averages 10 rebounds more per game than taller opponents. Furthermore, while anybody can hold down the score by holding the ball, Arkansas has given up an average of 60 points a game on defense while scoring 78. And, finally, there is this greatest of all contradictions: the Razorbacks got off to a national ranking and their best start since 1943 with what is basically a three-man team. Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief are all listed at 6'4", and all score in double figures. The other two starters, 6'10" Steve Stroud and 6'7" Jim Counce produce only 12 points and 10 rebounds a game between them. Before last week's contest, Memphis State star Dexter Reed said, "I don't see how a three-man team can beat our five-man team." He was right, but for most of the game it looked as if he would be wrong.
The Razorbacks led at the half 31-27 and did not fall behind permanently until 6:20 remained in the game. Most years a Memphis State team with only one loss in nine games would have killed an Arkansas team of any description, but the Razorbacks' harassing defense kept the Tiger shooters at 40% and the pesky re-bounders controlled the boards. In other words, Arkansas was doing to Memphis State what it had done to every other team it played. That the Razorbacks were also missing free throws and committing turnovers was nothing new, either. But what Coach Sutton did not expect was the way his well-drilled team gradually lost its poise, forcing shots, self-destructing against the Tigers' mediocre press and generally looking the way Arkansas basketball teams used to look.
"We were awful," Sutton admitted later. "It was one of the worst games a team of mine has ever played. And as bad as we were, I can't believe we led most of the way and lost by only seven."
The team stayed close because, as bad as it played and as unimposing as it appears, the Razorbacks really are pretty good. Junior Forward Delph can shoot with anybody from long range and is averaging 20.5 points a game. But Sutton says he "lives in fear of the night we face a zone and Marvin is on the bench with foul trouble." Brewer, another junior, is the best all-round player, which is to say the best ball handler and defender and the most versatile scorer. It is Moncrief, though, who is the most interesting member of the triumvirate.