Every college basketball team experiences it to some degree or another this time of year.
It is the invisible wall that pops up around the start of February. It is a wall built of exhaustion, soreness and the mental grind of conference play.
Teams that are knocked down by that wall fall short of their goals. Teams that break through the wall often become champions.
As Arkansas Tech prepares to visit Southern Arkansas for a Gulf South Conference doubleheader in Magnolia on Thursday, the question before both Wonder Boys head coach Mark Downey and Golden Suns head coach Dave Wilbers is how can their teams overcome that wall?
Tip-off for the women’s game between the nationally seventh-ranked Golden Suns (18-1 overall, 5-1 Gulf South Conference) and the SAU Lady Muleriders (6-13, 1-6) is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
The men’s contest between nationally top-ranked Arkansas Tech (19-0, 6-0) and Southern Arkansas (9-11, 4-3) will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Both games will be broadcast live from the W.T. Watson Athletic Center by Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM. The broadcast will be streamed over the Internet at www.athletics.atu.edu.
“With having this winning streak, I just really hope that it keeps us going,” said Downey when asked about the fatigue factor. “We took Tuesday off, and then Wednesday’s practice was short but hard. We’re trying to keep them fresh and not practice as much. We don’t want to grind them. I know we’ll hit that wall at some point, but I think with our depth and our mental toughness we’ll be alright.”
Arkansas Tech’s men remained undefeated with a 52-46 win at Christian Brothers on Monday. Jeremy Dunbar scored 20 points and the Wonder Boys held CBU without a point during a critical five-minute span late in the second half.
Tech beat Southern Arkansas 79-52 on Jan. 9 in Russellville. The Wonder Boys opened the second half on a 20-3 run and went on to deal the Muleriders their seventh consecutive loss.
SAU has since rebounded with four wins in its last six games, including a 54-51 win at Arkansas-Monticello on Saturday.
The biggest difference for the Muleriders in recent weeks has been the offensive output by junior guard Channin Harden. He has averaged 18.2 points per game in Southern Arkansas’ six outings since its loss to Arkansas Tech.
“He’s a good player,” said Downey of Harden. “We need to know how to defend him. We’ve talked about where he gets the ball, when he gets the ball and what he’s going to do with the ball. Hopefully our guys will take that to heart and understand that he is making them go right now. Defending him will be a big key to the game.”
The Golden Suns found out about that February wall on Monday. Tech’s women suffered their first loss of the season in a 78-72 setback at Christian Brothers.
CBU shot 61 percent from the field in the second half to overcome a 13-point Arkansas Tech lead at halftime.
The “wall” could be more of a factor for the Golden Suns than even the average college basketball team. With 14 new faces on its roster, few of Arkansas Tech’s key players have ever played the number of minutes at the college level that they are playing this season.
“It’s something that we always think about, especially when we have a lot of young players,” said Wilbers. “I think it’s something that winning cures a lot of the time. You get on a roll and start winning some games, and that leads to everyone feeling better about themselves and having more confidence. We cut the length of our practices down a little bit this time of year, spend that time watching film and then just get prepared for the next game.”
Southern Arkansas has lost five consecutive women’s basketball games and nine of its last 10. Included in that string was a 75-52 SAU loss at Arkansas Tech on Jan. 9.
The Lady Muleriders feature the top scorer in the GSC in sophomore forward Kmaria Hobbs (20.5 points per game), but her play has not been enough to overcome Southern Arkansas’ turnover margin woes.
SAU’s average turnover margin is minus-4.68 per game, which ranks last in the GSC and 251st in NCAA Division II.
Wilbers said that his team is focused on improving its defensive performance after struggling on that end of the floor in the loss at Christian Brothers.
“We’ll have to double team Hobbs,” said Wilbers. “Our defense has got to pick up. There was a big lack in that (at CBU), and I wouldn’t say so much that it was an effort thing. Our team defense just wasn’t very good in the second half. We didn’t get it done, but I think we’ll do a better job (at SAU).”
After visiting Southern Arkansas, Arkansas Tech’s basketball teams will return home to host Arkansas-Monticello on Saturday.
Tip-off times at Tucker Coliseum are set for 4 and 6 p.m. The ticket office and the doors to the coliseum will open at 3 p.m.]]>