If you saw the headline and figured I picked a pretty convenient time for this column, well, you’re not wrong.
Chris Lykes, Arkansas’ diminutive and recently divisive backup point guard, is coming off his best game in weeks, dropping nine points in the first half and leading the team with seven assists and four steals in Wednesday’s blowout win at Georgia.
So yes, I’ll plead guilty to obvious opportunism. I try not to make a habit of wading into arguments I have no chance of winning, and until Wednesday, it had been a while since those who would come to Lykes’ defense were given any evidence to work with.
But let’s back up for a minute and review how we got here.
As of this writing, the Hogs are on a roll, winners of seven straight and zooming back up bracket boards. But as we know, the recent hot streak was preceded by a humbling slump in which Arkansas lost five of six, including three straight to open conference play, and fell from the ranks of the nation’s top 10 to the point where a berth in the NCAA tournament was looking like a tenuous proposition.
And it was during that plunge that Lykes drew the ire of a not-insignificant portion of the fanbase.
In the sports fan’s psyche, when things are going poorly, failure needs an avatar: someone or something to blame for our team’s shortcomings. Often, deserving or not, the coach bears the burden. But occasionally, scapegoat status falls to a single player.
For good reason, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman was insulated from the harshest criticism, even as the season appeared to be going sideways. He’s got the track record to prove he knows how to win: his lowest season win total as a college coach is 20, which came in the COVID-interrupted campaign of 2020.
More importantly, he’s won here. We witnessed it, can attest to what he’s capable of with a first-hand account.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Lykes.
Prior to his arrival in Fayetteville, he put up 16 points per game as a score-first point guard in his final two seasons at the University of Miami, shooting 38 percent on 3-pointers and 81 percent from the free-throw line during his junior year.
He was given the keys to the Hurricanes offense and succeeded at a level sufficient to earn All-ACC first-team status prior to the 2020-21 season. That’s no small honor; the other four first-teamers on that list are all in the NBA right now.
An injury two games into what would’ve been his senior season at Miami sidelined him for the rest of the year and after flirting with the idea of turning pro, Lykes decided to spend his final year of eligibility in Arkansas.
From one perspective, it looked like a win-win for both player and team. Lykes gets to join a team fresh off an Elite Eight appearance, and the Hogs get a dynamic backcourt scorer to help make up for the loss of Moses Moody and Jalen Tate.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way so far.
Lykes started the season strong, averaging 15 points through the first five games. But a downturn in his offensive output correlated more or less with the Hogs’ losing skid, and Lykes became the personification of the team’s struggles for many fans.
And fair or not, it’s understandable.
Lykes draws attention – whether he wants to or not – both with his style of play and also because simply because of his stature. Listed at 5-foot-7, nothing he does on a basketball court will ever be inconspicuous. Every ballhandler over-dribbles from time to time, or misses an open cutter, or has spells when they can’t hit a jump shot. But Lykes’ mistakes are more glaring than others, and because we’ve only seen half a season from him – and half of that hasn’t been very good – we’re less likely to be forgiving when he makes them.
So, I understand the almost-audible grumbling when he enters the game, but I also think it’s counterproductive, and instead, I’m arguing on behalf of extended grace. Not because I’m an especially magnanimous person, but because if the Hogs are going to win as much as we want them to, we’re going to need the best possible version of Chris Lykes to do it.
Some look at Lykes and see a ball hog, a player out for personal glory at the expense of all else.
Listening to his teammates, I doubt that’s an accurate picture.
“It’s been tough for him for a couple of games, but he is one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” Stanley Umude said after Wednesday’s win. “Having him out there on the court, I feel calm out there. I feel good. I know he’s going to find me if I’m open.”
Maybe Umude is just being kind, but if he is, perhaps it’s best if we follow his lead, because Lykes seems like a kid who could use our support more than our criticism right now.
So I’d propose a more charitable perspective: think of him as somebody who has been asked to create offense from scratch his entire career, who is now surrounded by more talent than he’s ever played with, who is having to re-learn on the fly how to play the game, and who is experiencing some very real growing pains while both he and the Hogs try to live up to preseason hype.
If he can come through this recent downswing and play more like he did on Wednesday, that win-win we hoped for in the offseason is still attainable. Becoming a better distributor will make Lykes a more well-rounded, desirable player for the next stage of his career; he would leave Arkansas as another walking testimony to what Musselman can do for a player’s late-college development, while also giving Arkansas exactly what it’s been missing.
But if his confidence is in the gutter, as it appeared to be when he averaged just 3.5 points over a seven-game stretch earlier this month, the Hogs are going to struggle to keep their heads above water every minute J.D. Notae isn’t on the floor. We might get by against Ole Miss with only one minute from Lykes, but if we’re going to thrive against the better teams in the conference and beyond, odds are we’re going to need the kind of spark off the bench Lykes provided against Georgia.
So if you’re in Bud Walton Arena when Mississippi State visits on Saturday or when top-ranked Auburn comes to town Tuesday, make Lykes feel the love our fanbase is known for. Plenty of players have done more to earn our applause, but I’m not sure any of them need it more than he does right now. And I think we might end up needing him just as much.
Photo courtesy of 247sports.com
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.