The big question mark for Arkansas coming into the season was Marshawn Powell.
After turning heads with a dominating freshman season in 2009-2010, Powell’s career took a turn for the worse. He struggled during his sophomore season, seeing his output drop across the board, and after averaging 19.5 points through two games as a junior, Powell blew out his ACL.
Early on this year, Powell didn’t quite look like himself. He was averaging 17.0 points through the first three games — against powerhouse programs like Longwood and Florida A&M — but managed all of 10 points in 37 minutes in the two losses that Arkansas suffered in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Last Friday, however, Powell looked better. He 19 points on 5-10 shooting to go along with seven boards in a loss to Syracuse at Bud Walton Arena, but it wasn’t until Tuesday night that Powell really came alive.
In an 81-78 win over Oklahoma, Powell finished with 33 points on 11-17 shooting — including 4-6 on threes — while adding six boards and five assists. The Razorbacks needed every single one of those points, as well; BJ Young struggled throughout much of the game, finishing with just 10 points on 4-12 shooting.
A healthy Powell is a difference maker for Arkansas. Everyone knows how good Young is. He’s a lottery pick perfectly suited for Mike Anderson’s run-and-gun system, and even when Young is struggling like he did tonight, he’s capable of scoring in the clutch. Young scored on two tough drives in the final minute, the latter giving Arkansas the lead after a Steven Pledger three gave Arkansas their first lead of the second half at 78-77.
With Powell proving that he’s capable of putting up numbers like he did tonight, the Razorbacks have two go-to guys. And while he’s never been known for his ability to shoot, those four threes are meaningful. Powell is a power forward in a league with some big power forwards. If he’s a threat from the perimeter, that creates just that much more space for Young and the rest of the Arkansas wings in the paint.
In a league that looks more wide-open by the day, Powell’s presence makes Arkansas a team that could sneak up on people in the SEC.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, looked better than they did in their last two games. They have a trio of talented big men — Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye combined for 36 points in this one — and a talented back court, headlined by scorer Steven Pledger and setup man Sam Grooms. They hung with Arkansas in one of the tougher home-court environments, putting a run on the Razorbacks in a game they trailed for much of the second half.
I’m not sure Lon Kruger is in the business of moral victories, but after beating Northwestern State and Oral Roberts by a combined five points in the last two games, this is a promising performance.