By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — When the Arkansas Razorbacks (9-3) open up SEC play at Texas A&M (6-5) on Saturday, it will be the fourth time in the last eight seasons — all under head coach Mike Anderson — that the Hogs have begun league play against the Aggies on the road. It’s a chance for Arkansas to end its 0-3 winless streak in SEC-openers in College Station, TX.
Tip-off is set for shortly after 5 p.m. CT on Saturday, and the game will be televised by the SEC Network.
“We’re coming off a little break here,” said Anderson, referring to his team’s 8-day break between games following their 76-65 home win over Austin Peay on Dec. 28. “Get a chance to go play against Texas A&M on the road at their place. Seems like we’ve been playing them the last six or seven years at their place. It’s like the annual open-up place. It’s a team that won five games in a row before losing a game to Texas Southern so they’re playing some of their better basketball. Obviously some of the guys they’ve got there starts. The (Jay Jay) Chandler kid and of course (Savion) Flagg is a really good basketball player. They’ve got some transfers in there. “
Arkansas is 3-4 in SEC openers under Anderson, which includes a 1-3 mark on the road with all three of those road losses coming at the hands of Texas A&M — in 2012-13, ’13-14, and ’15-16. The Aggies’ average-winning-margin in those games was 19.0 points. Arkansas, averaging 81.8 points per game although failing to crack the 80-point scoring mark in its last five contests, has never scored more than 69 points in an SEC-opener at Texas A&M and twice failed to score more than 53 points there. The last time Arkansas won in College Station against the Aggies was during the 2016-17 season.
While Arkansas has won back-to-back games for the first time since having its 6-game winning streak snapped nearly a month ago at home, Texas A&M is coming off a 15-point home loss against Texas Southern that snapped the Aggies’ 5-game winning streak that included a win over Oregon State of the Pac-12 Conference.
“They’re a physical basketball team,” Anderson said of Texas A&M. “They’re always gonna have a defensive-minded team. They play the mid- to up-tempo, but one of the things they are they’re a tremendous rebounding basketball team. Something we’ve really been trying to address with our basketball team with so many newcomers. You’ve got to get them all on the same page. We’ve got to rebound as a team, I think that is the key. It’s gonna be won in the paint. That means rebounding, fouls, free throw line — so we’ve got to be up for the task.”
Like last season when Texas A&M had a veteran team that earned a bid to the NCAA tournament, this young Aggies squad has been solid on the glass while so far duplicating last year’s team rebounding average of 41 boards per game. Arkansas on the other hand averages 38.1 rebounds (minus-1.5 per game on the season), but the Hogs have been dominated on the glass in their last three games (combined minus-28) while getting clobbered in second-chance-points (50-12).
Much like Arkansas, the Aggies are young and inexperienced with several new faces. The loss of frontliners Robert Williams, Tyler Evans, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos in addition to wing D.J. Hogg and guard Admon Gilder were substantial for a Texas A&M team that started the season 1-4. Sophomore guard T.J. Starks leads the Aggies with 13.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.1 steals. Flagg, a 6-7 sophomore, is averaging 12.0 points and 7.6 rebounds, while Tennessee State senior-graduate transfer Christian Mekowulu is averaging 11.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks. Texas A&M averages 75 points per game on 45.1% field goal shooting (including only 29.1% from 3) and 68.7% free throw shooting.
“It’s totally different,” Aggies head coach Billy Kennedy said of no longer having Davis and Williams inside to play through. “Throw in Tonny Trocha-Morelos, we lost three guys 6-10 that were very good players. I wish I could say we replaced them, but we didn’t. Christian Mekowulu has been pretty good for us and Josh Nebo, but it’s really their first year playing in the SEC and playing at this level, so we’re really inexperienced with the guys that we lost. We’re trying to figure it out and continue to get better one day at a time. That’s all we can do right now.”
For Arkansas’s Daniel Gafford, the game Saturday signifies the start of his second tour going up against SEC frontlines. A consensus preseason All SEC 1st Team pick, the 6-11 sophomore center from El Dorado has earned SEC Player of the Week honors once so far this season after a brilliant 27-point, 12-rebound effort in which he carried Arkansas to the finish line in what is so far the team’s signature win, 73-72, over now-nationally-ranked Indiana. He’s already doubled his double-double output from a year ago with six so far in ’18-19, and he leads the Hogs and is Top 3 in the SEC in each of the following categories: scoring (17.5 points per game), rebounding (9.3), blocks (2.5), and field-goal percentage (66.1%).
“(Intensity was) the main thing that I wasn’t ready for last year when it came to SEC play, because non-conference you know we ran through people,” Gafford explained Thursday. “Then SEC play, first game we played with Tennessee, I was like … the physicality of it was way different than non-conference because you know everybody’s playing for something. So I just had to step it up. That’s basically what the young guys are going to have to do. They’re going to have to step it up and be ready, understand the fact that not every foul is going to be called. There’s going to be a lot of pushing around and stuff. Everybody’s going to try to PUNK them. But we’ve just got to come back and hit them hard ourselves.”
Junior forward Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien both have some experience playing in the SEC. Bailey is 5th on the team in scoring at 6.9 points per game to go with 3.8 rebounds. Osabuohien leads the team in drawn charges, he’s a good passer from the high post, he’s arguably the best on-ball defender on the team regardless of position, and he’s been a spark as an energy guy — ALL of this in 12.3 minutes per game that ranks as the fewest among the first two units.
Aside from Gafford, Bailey, and Osabuohien, Arkansas has several new faces who will be getting their first taste of SEC play.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith joins Gafford as the only Hogs to score in double figures in all 12 games, he’s second on the team and 7th in the SEC in scoring (15.8 points per game), he’s first on the team and 6th in the SEC in steals (1.7), he leads the SEC in 3-pointers made (46) and he leads the league in 3-point percentage (45.5%), his 10 made triples for a 34-point game against Florida International tied him for second-most points in a single game for an Arkansas freshman and earned him SEC Player of the Week honors.
Sophomore-transfer wing Mason Jones is third on the team in scoring (13.4 points), second in rebounds (5.1), second in assists (3.3), and second in 3-point shooting (both in makes at 27 and percentage at 39.7%). Sophomore-transfer Jalen Harris’s 6.3 assists per game ranks him second in the SEC, and his assists-to-turnovers (80 assists compared to only 14 turnovers) is among the best in the country. He’s the team’s best free throw shooter by percentage (79.5%), and he’s an effective finisher off drives to the basket. Conversely, his 3-of-27 shooting from 3 for 11.1% has been a glaring issue as zone defenses have dared Harris to shoot as defenders sag off to collapse on Gafford and shift to cover up Joe and Jones on the perimeter.
Freshman forward Reggie Chaney has eye-popping per-40-minute production — 14.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, and 1.4 steals — and he’s shooting 58.1% from the field while leading the second unit with 17.2 minutes per game. Freshman combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro has been the most consistent guard heading up the second unit, especially in the last 7 games as he has improved his scoring, 3-point shooting, and facilitating. Arguably the best backcourt on-ball defender on the team, Sills has seen his crunch-time involvement and presence increase in recent games.
Freshman combo guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson has been consistently good defensively, but a work in progress on offense. He was a key in two of Arkansas’s best wins, scoring double-figures in the road win against Colorado State and he had 14 points to key the Hogs’ game-closing 28-13 run for a come-from-behind 76-65 win over Austin Peay on Dec. 28. Freshman wing Jordan Phillips has battled back from injuries, and his 4 points and a steal fueled a 6-3 run that gave Arkansas a 34-33 halftime lead in that win over Austin Peay last week.
Although Anderson has seen his team start slow in SEC play, only his first Razorback squad finished league play with a losing SEC record (6-10 in ’11-12). With a team of 9 newcomers among the 12 on scholarship who are available to play, Anderson sees another difficult SEC gauntlet in the upcoming weeks.
“It’s conference time and everyone is in first place now, 0-0,” he said. “Obviously, I think our league is probably as good as it was last year. You’ve got some teams that are playing awfully well right now. Tennessee has a great, experienced team. They’re playing at a high level right now. But you look at Kentucky they’re playing good basketball. Mississippi State is a very good basketball team. There’s no easy teams in our league. It sets up for a great conference race I think.”
Just going solely by the NCAA NET ratings (through games played Jan. 2) — which replaces RPI this season to help the NCAA tournament selection committee determine at-large bids and seeding — Arkansas begins league play at No. 80 nationally which is 11th among SEC schools. Only Georgia (8-4, NCAA NET No. 82), Texas A&M (6-5 record, NCAA NET No. 116) and South Carolina (5-7 record, NCAA NET No. 226) are ranked worse.
Out of Arkansas’s 18 SEC games and one more non-conference game against Texas Tech in the Big XII-SEC Challenge on Jan. 26, the Hogs play 15 of those against league foes currently ranked inside the NCAA NET Top 80 — at No. 5 Tennessee, at No. 8 Texas Tech, at No. 11 Kentucky, home vs. No. 17 Mississippi State, at No. 19 Auburn, home-and-away vs. No. 27 LSU, home vs. No. 33 Florida, home-and-away vs. No. 43 Vanderbilt, home-and-away vs. No. 44 Ole Miss, home vs. No. 69 Alabama, and home-and-away vs. No. 70 Missouri. The Hogs are home vs. No. 82 Georgia, home-and-away vs. No. 116 Texas A&M, and at No. 226 South Carolina.
If you’re keeping score at home, the Hogs get seven more cracks against the current NCAA NET Top 27, but only two of those games will be played in the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena with the other five coming on the road. Five of the eight games against the current NCAA NET Nos. 33-70 will be played at BWA.