By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks have used a 4-game SEC winning streak to climb the ladder in league play from 11th place into a four-way tie for fifth, and a win on the road this weekend against South Carolina would pull the Hogs into a tie with the Gamecocks for fourth place as both teams tip off the second-half of league play.
Arkansas (14-8, 5-4 SEC) will face host South Carolina (11-11, 6-3 SEC) at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday in Columbia, S.C., in a game being televised by SEC Network.
The Razorbacks have won 3 straight games overall, 4 out of their last 5 which includes 4 in a row in SEC games, and they are 3-3 in true road games this season — including 2-2 in SEC road games after defeating then-No. 19 and then-SEC-co-leader LSU, 90-89, last Saturday in Baton Rouge, LA. In their series against the Gamecocks, the Hogs have won 3 consecutive and 5 of the last 6 meetings.
South Carolina started the season 4-7, but once SEC play began the Gamecocks jumped out to 5-1 in a stretch of games that included a road win at Florida and home wins against then-No. 14 Missississippi State and then-No. 16 Auburn. South Carolina has lost 3 of its last 4 games, but only one of those games was played at home — a 92-70 loss against No. 1 Tennessee at the end of January that dropped the Gamecocks to 3-1 in SEC home games.
“We’re playing against a South Carolina team that started league play playing really, really well,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his Thursday press conference. “I think a lot of things have come together for them. Like all (South Carolina head coach) Frank Martin’s teams, they’re going to be defensive-minded, very physical, great size, and a great player in (Chris) Silva.”
Silva, a 6-9 senior forward/center, is South Carolina’s leading scorer (13.6 points per game), rebounder (6.9), and shot-blocker (2.0) while playing 24.8 minutes per game. He’s shooting 51.4% from the field (inlcudes 8-of-21 from 3 for 38.1%) and 74.3% from the free throw line. Silva, who is foul prone and averages 3.7 fouls per game, has picked up at least 4 fouls with two disqualifcations in South Carolina’s last 9 games. He’s also had his two most-productive outings recently — 32 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks in an 80-77 win over Auburn on Jan. 22, and 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the loss against the Vols on Jan. 29.
A.J. Lawson, a 6-6 freshman, leads the Gamecocks in minutes (30.1 per game) and is second in scoring (13.2 points) while averaging 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.2 steals. Senior Hassan Gravett, a 6-2 point guard, is averaging 10.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 28.5 minutes while shooting 43.6% from the field (including 38.6% from 3) and 85.4% free throws. Skilled big men Maik Kotsar (6-11 junior) and Felipe Haase (6-9 sophomore) can play inside and out, each averaging more than 22 minutes while combining for 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Keyshawn Bryant is a rangy 6-6 freshman who is contributing 9.0 points and 3.6 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Georgetown senior-grad-transfer Tre Campbell, a 6-0 guard, is averaging 6.4 points in 24.3 minutes while shooting 36.1% from 3 and 81.0% free throws.
As a team, South Carolina only goes about seven players deep. The Gamecocks average 74.0 points, 36.4 rebounds, 12.6 assists, 6.1 steals, 4.5 blocks, and 14.1 turnovers while shooting 42.9% field goals (including 32.7% from 3) and 69.8% free throws.
Arkansas has also been a defensive-minded team for most of its 22 games in 2018-19, with sporadic offense, poor free throw shooting, poor rebounding, and eratic late-game execution being the biggest hurdles for a team that has roller-coastered from having 4 straight losses to winning 4 of its last 5 games. But in their last two wins — the aforementioned road victory over LSU followed by a 69-66 home win on Tuesday against Vanderbilt — the Razorbacks showed improvement in several areas where they had been struggling.
Against the Tigers, the Hogs shot over 58% field goals (including over 54% from 3) while having a 26-point advantage in scoring from the field, which was critical given that Arkansas was outscored by 25 at the free throw line (32-of-38 for LSU compared to 7-of-11 for the Hogs). Against Vandy, the Hogs came in as the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC at sub-65% but knocked down 15-of-20 freebies for 75%, including a 2-of-2 trip with 7.6 seconds remaining that extended a 1-point lead to 3 and forced the Commodores into a 3-point attempt that failed in their final possession.
In both games, Arkansas executed offensively while trailing in the final minute of play. After a timeout against LSU, it was 6-5 sophomore wing Mason Jones who executed the gameplan by methodically working 5-11 Tremont Waters down into the paint for what was effectively a lay-in for a 1-point lead with 23 seconds remaining. And after a timeout against Vandy, it was good, crisp, decisive inside-out ball movement that allowed the Hogs’ three leading scorers — Daniel Gafford, Isaiah Joe, and Jones — to each get touches while making the defense move and work before Gafford passed out of a double-team to find freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson wide open on the right wing for what proved to be the game-winning 3-point basket with 14 seconds remaining.
Gafford had his best back-to-back SEC games against LSU and Vanderbilt in terms of scoring production and efficiency, averaging 25.5 points on 20-of-29 field goals (69.0%) and 11-of-14 free throws (78.6%) to go with 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The 6-11 El Dorado native is tops on the team and Top 5 in the SEC in scoring (16.8 points per game, fifth SEC), rebounding (8.9, second SEC), blocks (2.0, fourth SEC), and field goal percentage (66.5%, first SEC).
Joe had 36 points (including 10-of-18 from 3 for 55.6%), 7 rebounds, and 7 assists combined in the wins over LSU and Vandy. His 4 rapid-fire 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes of the first half against the ‘Dores helped the Hogs erase a double-digit deficit to pull within one, 35-34, at the break, and his work as a facilitator in a two-man game with Gafford in the second half was a key to the Hogs’ win. The 6-5 shooting guard from Fort Smith is second on the team in scoring (14.2 points per game, 10th in the SEC while leading all freshman in the league) and first on the team in steals (1.5, ninth in the SEC), and he leads the SEC in 3-pointers made (79) and is second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (44.4%). Joe is also second on the team in free throw percentage (73.5%).
Jones continues to be Arkansas’s jack-of-all-trades from the wing as he is third on the team in scoring (13.7 points per game), second in rebounding (4.5), second is assists (3.0), and first in free throw shooting (79.8%). His basket that proved to be the game-winner at LSU and his 2-of-2 free throws with 7.6 seconds remaining that extended a 1-point lead to 3 against Vanderbilt were just the latest examples of his clutch play late in games.
After facing South Carolina on Saturday, the Hogs remain on the road for a mid-week game against Missouri (Tuesday, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. CT, SEC Network).
Hog food for Hog thought …
— Arkansas is the only team in the SEC with 3 players in the Top 15 in scoring — Daniel Gafford (16.8 points per game is fifth in the league), Isaiah Joe (14.2 points is 10th), and Mason Jones (13.7 points is 15th).
— Freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson was a huge asset playing off the bench in Arkansas’s recent wins over LSU and Vanderbilt, averaging 18.0 minutes and 10.5 points on 8-of-14 field goals (57.1%), including 5-of-8 from 3 (62.5%). He was on the floor in the closing minutes of both come-from-behind wins, and it was his 3-point basket with 14 seconds remaining that proved to be the game-winner against the ‘Dores.
— Sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien continues to offer big value in limited minutes off the bench. On an Arkansas team that is only 9-deep, the 6-8 Toronto native is ninth on the team in minutes (13.3 per game) and scoring (2.9 points), but his per-40-minute rebounding (9.0) is third-best on the team, his assists (28) are the most among the frontline players by a wide margin and is fifth-best on the team, and he leads the team in drawn charges. In maybe the most peculiar stat, Osabuohien is fifth on the team in 3-point percentage (minimum 10 attempts) at 5-of-18 for 27.8%, which is only 1.0% worse than the Hogs’ 4th-best shooter from distance. He’s also the team’s best on-ball defender with the versatility to defend guards out on the floor or bigs down in the paint.
— The Hogs are currently No. 60 in NCAA NET rankings, and on the strength of 4 wins in their last 5 games they went from being off the NCAA tournament at-large-bid radar to being squarely on the “Bubble”, at least according to Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Bracketville of NBCSports.com — both Bracketologies have Arkansas among the “First 4 Out” in their most-recent projected NCAAT fields. After starting the season 6-1, Arkansas climbed as high as No. 32 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and had been projected as high as a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament.
— Arkansas is 1-3 against the current NCAA NET Top 25, 1-3 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 26-50, 2-0 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 51-100, and 10-2 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 101-plus … the Hogs have two more games against the current NCAA NET Top 25, three more games against the current NCAA NET Nos. 26-50, and four more against the NCAA NET Nos. 51-plus.
— With last-minute, come-from-behind wins over LSU and Vanderbilt in their two most-recent outings, the Razorbacks are now 8-6 on the season in one- or two-possession games inside of two minutes to play … the wins coming against Indiana, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, Austin Peay, at Texas A&M, Georgia, at LSU, and Vandy, and the losses coming against Texas in overtime, Western Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Florida, LSU in overtime, and at Texas Tech. The 6 losses were by a combined 22 points.
— Defense continues to be Arkansas’s strong suit in ’18-19: 40.9% opposition field goal shooting, 32.3% opposition 3-point field goal shooting, 16.7 opposition turnovers per game (UA is plus-3.1 per game), 8.0 steals per game (3rd SEC), 5.1 blocks per game (6th SEC), 13.1 combined steals/blocks (3rd SEC) … Arkansas has forced 96 turnovers combined in its last 5 games … according to KenPom ratings, Arkansas ranks third in the SEC and 46th in the nation in overall defensive efficiency.
— Arkansas bounced back on the boards against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, losing the rebounding battle by only 32-29 and second-chance-points by only 10-6. In their previous two games against Georgia and LSU, the Razorbacks had been decimated on the glass to the tune of a combined 100-52 that led to a lopsided 38-11 disadvantage in second-chance-points … the Razorbacks are 12th in the SEC in rebounding at 35.7 boards per game.
— Arkansas is the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC by a wide margin at 65.3%, but the Hogs combined for 22-of-31 from the line for 71.0% in wins over LSU and Vanderbilt … to give a more clear picture of free throw shooting in the SEC, if Arkansas could raise its season percentage at the line to 71.0% it would still only be good for 7th-best in the league.