By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks went from a team struggling on offense to a group checking up short in confidence and failing on defense while giving up 284 combined points in an 8-day span against now-No. 25 LSU, now-No. 1 Tennessee, and now-No. 20 Ole Miss in consecutive losses in their last three games.
Overall, the Hogs are in the midst of a four-game losing skid — a first in Mike Anderson’s eight seasons as head coach — as they look to bounce back at home in a mid-week SEC game against Missouri, a team that has had its own struggles but picked up its first SEC win Saturday at Texas A&M, 66-43.
Arkansas (10-7, 1-4 SEC) hosts Missouri (10-6, 1-3 SEC) at 8 p.m. CT on Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in a game that will be televised by SEC Network.
“Not off to the start that we want to but at the same time there is a lot of basketball to be played and I really believe this team will continue to get better” Anderson said Monday during his press conference. “We are playing against a Mizzou team that probably is trying to get wins just like we are. And we have got to be able to defend the home court. They won a big game at A&M, and of course with (second-year Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin’s) team they are going to come in and get after you defensively and rebound the basketball with (6-10 sophomore Jeremiah) Tilmon inside. The (6-2 senior Jordan) Geist kid is playing better.”
“Whereas our team we need to play a total good game. That’s what I’m looking for from our guys. I think we’ve been trying to win just with offense and you can’t win just with offense in our league. You’ve got to give a defensive effort as well. We’ve got to continue to get better in a lot of different areas. Taking care of the basketball is going to be one of them. We’ve got to take care of the basketball. You’ve got to be able to defend. We talked about getting off to a good start and we started the (Ole Miss) game off right off the game with a turnover. You can’t do that, especially on the road. I look for our guys to come out and play with a much greater sense of urgency. We are playing against a Mizzou team that obviously borders where the states touch. So it’s going to be a big game for us and a big game for them as well.”
After mostly playing well defensively — Arkansas had been holding teams to sub-40% field goals and sub-30% from 3 — while struggling on offense and failing to crack the 80-point scoring mark in a 7-game stretch, the Hogs had a 3-game run against LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss where they gave up an average of 94.7 points per game as those three opponents combined for 94-of-185 field goals (50.8%), including 28-of-65 from 3 (43.1%). It didn’t help matters that Arkansas was a combined minus-15 in rebounds (110-95) in those three games, and that was compounded by the Razorbacks’ inability to win the turnover battle (52-49 for a combined minus-3) that fed a lopsided deficit in points-off-turnovers (80-55 for a combined minus-25).
After losing their first 5 games by a combined 19 points, the Razorbacks’ losses against Tennessee (106-87) and Ole Miss (84-67) on the road last week were by a combined 36 points.
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 — failed to score in double figures twice during the Hogs’ current 4-game losing streak after scoring 10 or more points in Arkansas’s first 13 games. The 6-11 El Dorado native managed only 9 points each in losses to Florida and Ole Miss as both the Gators and Rebels devoted 2 and 3 defenders to collapse on him in the paint. Gafford leads the Hogs in scoring (16.5 points, sixth SEC), rebounds (9.4, second SEC), blocks (2.1, fifth SEC), field goal percentage (64.7%, tops in the SEC), and double-doubles in points and rebounds (8, second SEC). Gafford has been up-and-mostly-down at the free throw line — he’s 59.1% on the season — but despite scoring only 9 points in Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss, Gafford had his best outing at the line in league play by knocking down 5-of-6 for 83.3%.
“Daniel is getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so,” Anderson said. “He’s played so well. And as the attention with two or three people around him our spacing has not been the greatest. If our spacing was good enough you’d see those guys being the recipients of some good passes from him. But they (defenders) are coming at him and saying, ‘Hey, those other guys are going to have to beat you.’ And so our other guys are going to have to step it up and make shots and make plays and take care of the basketball.”
“I think he’s giving us everything he can. But that’s what happens from not being on the scouting report to on the top of the scouting report. We know he can play a lot better but we had too many turnovers … I didn’t think (Ole Miss) had an answer for Dan if we continued to have patience and get the ball in. But I thought we sped up and played too fast. And then of course Ole Miss took advantage of that. But I think with Dan, he’s got to be the centerpiece. He’s got to be able do touch the ball even if he doesn’t shoot it. I think he’s a willing passer, he’s not a black hole. And those other guys have got to be able to play off him. That to me is the execution part that we’ve got to get better at.”
Gafford talked about Arkansas’s confidence level that Anderson described as “shattered” following the Ole Miss loss, and Gafford also talked about getting limited touches and shot attempts against defenses designed to stop him as well as the Hogs’ defensive lapses.
“I mean you can see our confidence level is pretty low right now because of the way we’re playing,” Gafford said. The last game we played with some fight but we didn’t play with that much fight that we needed. Our confidence level is going to get back up but we’ve just got to come out and play the basketball that we played at the beginning of the year. The main thing I could have (done to create offense), I could have just moved around more instead of just post up and have my back to the basket. I could have been setting screens, off the ball screens or ball screens for the guard. It’s just that I was standing in one spot too much during the game and I was crowding up the lane. Other guys can do basically what they do to get me open. They can screen for me. They can come off my screens and I’ll be open for that. Or they can move around and to keep the paint from being cluttered. And if I get the ball inside on the post they can just cut to the basket, find the easy lane to the hoop and get the easy layup.
“We’ve just got to protect the inside (defensively). When teams get it on the inside against us it’s automatic, and it’s like we have no resistance on the inside. Especially with big guys like me. You know I’m supposed to be blocking shots and stuff. I need to step up my defense … Like on ball-screen defense, we need to fix that also. There’s a lot of things we need to fix, and it’s a lot of things we know we need to get fixed and it’s going to be fixed. We just know it’s a process.”
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe appears to have snapped out of a shooting and scoring slump in SEC games as he had a combined 34 points on 10-of-21 shooting from 3 (47.6%) during Arkansas’s two-game road swing at Tennessee and Ole Miss last week. In the Hogs’ first three league games, Joe scored a combined 22 points on 5-of-17 from 3 (29.4%). The 6-5 Fort Smith native, who has once been named SEC Player of the Week after scoring 34 points against Florida International on Dec. 1, is second on the team in scoring (14.5 points, 10th SEC and first among SEC freshmen), first in steals (1.5, eighth SEC), and first in 3-point field goal shooting (61 makes, second SEC … and 43.6%, top 5 SEC).
Sophomore wing Mason Jones had a rough 1-of-10 shooting game for 5 points in the loss at Ole Miss after erupting for a total of 70 points in the Hogs’ previous three games. Jones is third on the team in scoring (14.4 points per game), second in rebounding (4.9), second in assists (3.2), and second in 3-point field goal shooting (makes at 38, and percentage at 35.5%). He leads the team in free throw percentage at 81.7%.
Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris leads the Hogs in assists (6.5, second SEC) but has seen his assist-to-turnover continually regress, although it remains a strong 3.7-to-1. Freshman forward Reggie Chaney had scored in double figures in back-to-back games off the bench against LSU and Tennessee, but after getting his second start of the season against Ole Miss on Saturday he struggled defensively and saw only 12 minutes of playing time. Freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson had a career-high 16 points in 20 minutes off the bench against Ole Miss.
Sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien scored a career-high 13 points in 26 minutes off the bench against the Rebels. He’s ninth on the team in minutes per game (13.4), but he’s third in per-40-minute rebounding (9.7), he’s arguably the team’s best on-ball defender and leads the team in drawn charges (12), he leads all frontline players in assists (17), and he’s improving at the free throw line (47.2% on the season, but combined 8-of-11 in the last two games for 72.7%).
“I’ve talked about patience throughout this year,” Anderson said. “And even as we played in the Ole Miss game, we didn’t shoot the ball well. And then of course now it just trickles down to your defensive side. I think there are some things we’re doing well. The bright spot in that game, you look at Keyshawn Embery-Simpson: He gave us some quality minutes. I thought Gabe gave us some really good minutes. So now if you get some of those guys that are starting off to playing at the level they’re capable of playing. I think we see Isaiah is really starting to play with that pop that you’ve got to play with. I think that’s even with our team: We’ve got to play with a little bit more pop, a little more energy. We’re an energy team. Once that energy is injected from a defensive standpoint, then we’re in an attacking mode offensively as well.”
“But I think getting in the gym and continuing to work, and continuing to believe in each other. I think about these guys is continuing to believe in one another. We’ll eventually get over the hump. We’re becoming a team. There’s a learning curve. You’ve not going to see Mason Jones go 1 for 10. I mean, he was 1 for 10. And that’s one of our leading scorers in conference play. So we’ve got to have more guys click on some of the cylinders that can help us offensively. And then defensively I think we’ve really got to dig into the trenches and become one of those teams that says, ‘You know what? If we don’t score, then you don’t score.’ I think that’s got to be the mindset. Get stingy on them.”
Same as Arkansas, Missouri’s lone league win came on the road against Texas A&M. The Tigers, who lost star forward Jontay Porter prior to the start of the season, notched non-conference wins over Oregon State, Central Florida, Xavier, and Illinois. Missouri had won 6 consecutive non-conference games before opening SEC play 0-3. The Tigers are averaging 68.3 points per game on 43.6% field goals — includes an impressive 39.2% clip from 3 as a team — and 68.9% free throws. Missouri, which has nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, averages 34.7 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game.
Geist leads the team with 13.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.2 steals in 31.9 minutes while shooting 41.8% field goals, including 36% from 3, and 76.6% free throws. Sophomore guard Mark Smith averages 12.0 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 46.7% from 3 and 77.4% free throws. Tilmon averages 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 54.7% field goals and 70.5% free throws. Senior forward Kevin Puryear is averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 41.2% from 3, and freshman guard Javon Pickett averages 8.3 points while shooting 37.5% from 3.
After playing Missouri, the Hogs go back on the road against No. 14 Texas Tech (15-3) on Saturday in the Big XII-SEC Challenge, then the following week it’s back home against Georgia on Tuesday, Jan. 29, before a road game against No. 25 LSU on Saturday, Feb. 2.