Arkansas backcourt partners Darrell (Sky) Walker and Alvin (Dog) Robertson are known to Razorback fans as the Smothers Brothers, a moniker that has nothing to do with comedy routines. Walker, a 6'4" senior, and Robertson, a 6'3" junior, share the nickname because of the suffocating—or smothering—defense they play.
And because their defensive skills are matched by a flashy offensive repertoire, they form about the best guard combo in college. At week's end, Walker and Robertson had led the Razorbacks to a surprising 13-0 record and a No. 18 ranking in the SI Top 20. "Teams may have one guard who's better than one of them, but I don't think anyone has a pair that can equal these two," says Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton, who knows a thing or two about backcourt players, having coached such luminaries as U.S. Reed, Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief.
Certainly no other pair of guards is as important to its team. Following last week's road victories, 66-64 over Texas A&M and 63-56 over SMU, Walker and Robertson had scored 40.4% of Arkansas' points, made 60.0% of its steals, dished out 48.4% of its assists and hauled in 30.4% of its rebounds. Walker led the Southwest Conference in scoring with a 17.8 average, while Robertson was averaging 13.4. But defense is where they've made their name; between them, they had 75 steals in 13 games.
Though Robertson was averaging 3.1 thefts to Walker's 2.9, Walker is the one the opposition finds more infuriating. He has a way of grinning at an opponent and then laughing out loud when he swipes the ball. Last year, after Walker had stripped San Diego State's Keith Smith on successive possessions, poor Smith tackled him in frustration. With Robertson starting this season, the Arkansas defense is double trouble. "Other guards can never rest," says Robertson. "They know that Darrell and I will be coming at them all night. We can read each other so well that I know when Darrell is going to guard his man straight up and when he's going to turn him toward me."
January 24, 1983
If Robertson speaks passionately about defense, it's mainly because Sutton has long had a passion for ball-hawking guards. While his coaching rivals search for frontline bangers, Sutton generally prefers players with wings on their feet and glue on their fingers. "You can win with mediocre forwards at the college level," Sutton says, "so my first priority is big-time guards. If you can match them with a big-time center, you can be a national contender."
Sutton had no idea he'd have a national contender this season. Walker was the only full-time starter back from a 23-6 team that had won the conference championship for the fifth time (including two ties) in Sutton's eight seasons. "This is the youngest team I've had since I came to Arkansas," he says. "We've worked harder with this team than any other club I've had." As further preparation for a good season, Sutton scheduled a preconference diet of Hog slop—e.g., both Southwest and Southeast Missouri—to give the Razorbacks a chance to fatten up their record. At the beginning, though, not even Sutton was hog-wild over what he saw. After a lackluster 74-57 defeat of Southeast Missouri, he said, "I'm not sure our fans ought to watch us until December is over." Now, the Razorbacks can hardly be ignored.
Another key to their development has been 6'11" Center Joe Kleine, a sophomore transfer from Notre Dame. A 255-pound bruiser out of Slater, Mo., Kleine was the Hogs' No. 1 recruiting choice three seasons ago, but because he's Catholic he chose to go to South Bend. After one season, however, he opted to transfer to Arkansas, because he didn't feel that the Notre Dame offense was giving him the ball enough. Last week he had two of his finest games, scoring a career-high 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds against A&M and then getting 16 points and 13 boards against SMU. "We've never had a player with his talent and size," says Sutton, who notes that Kleine's predecessor, the talented Scott Hastings, was a natural forward forced to play out of position.
Because of their inside-outside balance, the Hogs may be more versatile than ever. "If we have to run, we have the speed," says Sutton. "If we face a big team, we can put big men in there. Of course, we didn't think there was any way we'd be undefeated at this point. And I still can't tell how good we are. We'll play great for seven or eight minutes, then go from the mountaintop to the valley and really stink it up for three or four minutes. But I believe we'll be very good before the end of the season."
Sutton has two particular areas of concern: free-throw shooting (Arkansas' .599 team percentage through last week was just .058 better than its field goal percentage) and turnovers. Despite forcing an average of 20 turnovers a game, Arkansas was committing 18 of its own. And the Razorbacks haven't exactly blown away their undistinguished opposition, winning six of their last seven games by an average of 4.3 points. Indeed, it took two clutch free throws by freshman Willie Cutts—a woeful 53.9% free-throw shooter at game time—to secure the victory against A&M. Sutton's decision to spend 20% of the team's practice time at the foul line finally may be paying off.
The Razorbacks must have their total game in gear if they are to pass their most serious test of the season this week at Houston. The Cougars' frontcourt dominance will put an added burden on Robertson and Walker.
Although Walker today is a model citizen—when he speaks to Sutton's wife, Patsy, on the telephone, he calls himself "your adopted son, Sky Walker"—when he came to Fayetteville in 1980 he was indolent, moody and undisciplined. "He was a wild colt," says Sutton. "When we were on the floor, we'd have four players playing our game and Darrell playing his. He'd pout if things didn't go his way. Now he's smiling on the court all the time, handing the ball back to the officials. Two years ago he'd have thrown it at them." Worse, Walker skipped classes and missed team meetings and practices. Finally, in February 1981, Sutton suspended him, because, Sutton says, "He had to understand that the program is bigger than Darrell Walker."
Meanwhile, rumors around Fayetteville exceeded Walker's actual transgressions; he was accused of drug abuse, drinking and womanizing. He was frequently and unfavorably compared to Moncrief, easily the state's most beloved athlete, who's now starring for the Milwaukee Bucks. "It was a lot to handle," Walker says.
These days it's all opponents can do to handle Walker. With a little push from Moncrief, who told him he could be a first-round NBA draft choice if he cleaned up his act, Walker is taking the opposition to the cleaners. His defense is better than ever, and his jump shot, though stiff and labored, is nonetheless falling more frequently. On Dec. 15 he scored a career-high 35 points in a 108-65 win over Alabama State. Last week he was held to just 10 points in the Hogs' defeat of the Aggies but came back two nights later to score 17 points, 13 in the second half, and make two key steals against the Mustangs.
He has also served as counselor for other troubled Razorbacks; three of his teammates have been suspended for at least one game for roughly the same reasons Walker was. One of them was Robertson, whose background is similar to Walker's in some other respects.
Both were Midwestern high school stars (Walker in Chicago, Robertson in Barberton, Ohio) who, because of bad grades, had to attend one year of junior college (Westark in Fort Smith, Ark., Crowder College in Neosho, Mo., respectively) before they could enroll at Arkansas. Though Walker started as a sophomore, Robertson didn't do so until the last three games of the 1981-82 regular season. He then won the MVP award of the Southwest Conference tournament, proving once again that every Dog has his day.
Walker got his nickname because of his 38-inch vertical leap. Robertson, who can go just as high, got his nickname from his brothers at Omega Psi Phi, who are themselves known as the Q-Dogs on the Fayetteville campus. "In a game, I'll tell him, 'Let's go Doggie, let's get after 'em,' " Walker says. And, doggone, if it doesn't work.