By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — It may be the latest installment of the Big 12 / SEC Challenge, but Arkansas and No. 14 Texas Tech will be dealing with a few real, season-critical challenges as the teams meet at 5 p.m. CT Saturday in Lubbock, TX, in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN2.
The Razorbacks (11-7, 2-4 SEC) are playing on the road against a ranked opponent for the third time in their last four games — the previous two endeavors did not go well as the Hogs lost both by a combined 36 points. And coming off a 12-point win Wednesday at home against Missouri that snapped a 4-game losing skid, Arkansas is now looking for a much needed NCAA-tournament-resume-building road win against a quality non-conference opponent.
The Red Raiders (15-4, 4-3 Big 12) started 15-1 but have lost three consecutive games — a streak that started with their first home loss of the season against Iowa State — so they’re looking to get back on track at home before jumping back into Big 12 play.
Both teams need a win to help correct recent struggles. They’ve battled to an even 39-39 record over the previous 78 games in a series that goes back to when they were league foes in the old Southwest Conference.
“They’re in a great league,” said Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson when asked Thursday about Texas Tech’s losing streak. “We lost four in a row. When you’re in a great league, that can happen. You start to kind of, in your mind, you start playing games with yourself in your mind. (Texas Tech head coach Chris) Beard is a good coach and he has some experienced guys, so I’m sure those guys are looking forward to getting back home and trying to right the ship.”
While Arkansas will look to push tempo and get into a fast-paced affair — something the young Hogs have struggled with before enjoying some uptempo success in the final 30 minutes against Mizzou — Texas Tech will look to dictate a slower pace while mixing in occasional transition opportunities and playing a stingy, physical brand of halfcourt defense. The Red Raiders are first in the country in field-goal defense (35.3% opposition shooting), second in scoring defense (55.9 opposition points per game), and third in 3-point field goal defense (26.4%).
“They are really coming in and creating a great culture as a defensive-minded team,” said Anderson, who has guided the Hogs to a 2-2 record in the Big XII / SEC Challenge in the past four seasons. “They are one of the tops in defense in field goal percentage, scoring and 3-point percentages so you know it’s going to be one of those games where it’s a grind-out game. At their pace it favors them. Of course we’d like to hopefully to push the tempo. In order to do that you’ve got to make shots so you can get into your defense.”
Texas Tech, which suffered double-digit losses in each of its last two games on the road against Baylor and Kansas State, averages 70.2 points and 34.7 rebounds while shooting 46.7% field goals (including 33.2% from 3) and 70.5% free throws.
Jarrett Culver, a 6-5 sophomore, leads the Red Raiders with 18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.3 steals while shooting 53.1% field goals (including 34.9% from 3) and 69.4% free throws in 31.4 minutes per game. South Dakota-grad-transfer Matt Mooney, a 6-3 senior, is averaging 10.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 43% field goals (including 32.7% from 3) and 72.3% free throws in 29.2 minutes per game. St. John’s-grad-transfer Tariq Owens, a 6-10 senior forward / center, is averaging 8.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. Davide Moretti,a 6-2 sophomore guard, is averaging 9.8 points on 46.1% field goals (including 38.9% from 3) and 90.9% free throws. Freshman guard Kyler Edwards — he teammed up with Hogs freshman forward Reggie Chaney last year at Findlay Prep — is averaging 6.1 points in 20.1 minutes.
“Culver probably first team (All Big 12),” Anderson said of the Red Raiders star guard. “He may even be All-American. I know he’s going to be All-Big 12, he’s a sophomore. They’ve got a lot of grad transfers. The Mooney kid is a very good basketball player. The Owens kid is 6-10. It’s a team that’s well balanced. Obviously they have a featured guy in Culver but I think they have some really good players on their basketball team. They’ve played extremely well at home. They are coming off some losses very much as we had as well. So it’s another opportunity for us to get better and find out a little bit more about our basketball team.
“Can our defense travel? Offensively, can we travel? We got into a better rhythm in the second half against Missouri (Wednesday) night. So it’s a great opportunity. A great challenge but it’s a great opportunity for our guys to have an opportunity to play against somebody outside of conference. It’s kind of interesting because you’re grinding and you’re grinding and all of a sudden you jump out of conference play, but it’s the next game on our schedule.“
The Hogs’ strength was defense, too, until a recent 3-game stretch that saw now-No. 25 LSU, now-No. 1 Tennessee, and now-No. 20 Ole Miss combine to score 284 points in three Arkansas losses. Going into those games, Arkansas had held opponents below 40% field goal shooting and below 30% 3-point field goal shooting through 14 games.
After falling behind by 13 points midway through the first half against Missouri in their last game, the Razorbacks did get back on track defensively en route to a 72-60 win that held the Tigers 8 points below their season team scoring average. Arkansas had 13 steals among 24 turnovers in that game, and the the Hogs held Missouri without a field goal in the final 5 minutes of the game while finishing on a 12-1 run. Arkansas dominated points-off-turnovers (27-13), fast-break-points (18-4), and points-in-the-paint (30-16) while staying close on the glass (30-29 for minus-1, but 10-9 in second-chance points for plus-1).
The win snapped Arkansas’s 4-game losing streak, which included back-to-back home losses against Florida and LSU in games the Hogs had a chance to win in the final minute of each game, followed by the two blowout losses on the road against Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford — a preseason All SEC first-team pick who was recently named to the Sporting News Mid-Season College Basketball All American Third Team — recorded his eighth double-double of the season (13 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals in 35 minutes) against Mizzou. The 6-11 El Dorado native has battled through almost nightly double-teams to lead the Hogs in scoring (16.3 points), rebounds (9.4), blocks (1.9), and field goal percentage (64.8%).
Freshman Isaiah Joe had a game-high 23 points against Missouri on 8-of-13 field goals (including 7-of-12 from 3) to go with 3 steals, 2 assists, and 1 rebound in 33 minutes. After starting SEC play with only 22 total points in three games on a combined 5-of-17 from 3 (29.4%), Joe has thawed out in the Hogs’ last three SEC games by scoring a combined 57 points and shooting a combined 17-of-34 from 3 (50%). He’s second on the team in scoring (14.9 points), he leads the Hogs in steals (1.6), he leads the SEC in 3-point field goals (68), and he’s second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (44.7%).
After scoring a combined 70 points in three consecutive SEC games, sophomore wing Mason Jones has cooled off shooting and struggled in the Razorbacks last two games as he’s combined for only 3-of-20 field goals for 11 points. The 6-5 DeSoto, TX, native is third on the team in scoring (13.9 points), second in rebounds (4.8), and second in assists (3.1) while leading the team in free throw percentage (81.7%).
“He isn’t making shots,” Anderson said of Jones. “He missed some chippy layups. And with a guy that scores like that, you’ve got to do something to get yourself going, especially early on. Whether it be getting to the free throw line, or making a layup. But he’s doing some other things, I think, to contribute. He’s just probably pressing a little bit. And so the next game, hopefully he’ll show up for us, because we’ll need him.”
Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris — 10 points, 6 assists, 3 steals, and zero turnovers in 32 minutes in the win over Mizzou — bounced back with perhaps his best game since helping Arkansas win at Texas A&M, 73-71, on the road in the SEC opener. It was Harris’s fifth game with zero turnovers, and his 3.87-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the SEC and is fifth in the NCAA.
After playing Texas Tech, Arkanas is back home against Georgia on Tuesday, Jan. 29, before a road game against No. 25 LSU on Saturday, Feb. 2.