By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks put together two strong halves during their recent two-game road swing against South Carolina and Missouri, the problem was they also had two bad halves that trumped all else as the Hogs returned home 0-2 with an upcoming formidable test this weekend against one of the most veteran and talented teams in the SEC.
Arkansas (14-10, 5-6 SEC) will play host to Mississippi State (17-7, 5-6 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in a game being televised by SEC Network.
Both teams are looking to pull even in SEC play with a win, and they’re either currently projected (Bulldogs) or still very much in the hunt (Razorbacks) for an NCAA tournament at-large bid coming down the back stretch of the regular season. Arkansas has lost three straight games in its series against Mississippi State with its last win coming over three years ago — an 82-68 victory on Jan. 9, 2016, at BWA.
“We move on to the next game which is Mississippi State, a team that just had a big win against Alabama,” eighth-year Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said Thursday during his press conference. “We both have the same record in conference play so needless to say it’s a big game. A big game in a lot of ways for our basketball team having lost two on the road and having the chance now to defend our home court against a Mississippi State team that was in the Top 15 earlier in the year and they are playing a much, much higher level. A very talented team, a very athletic team. Great size.
“Of course you have the Weatherspoon brothers. Quinndary Weatherspoon is an outstanding player. He’s a senior that leads their team in scoring and a lot of other categories. Lamar Peters is a really crafty guard, quick and handles the ball, gets guys in position to score. Again they have size and play about eight or nine guys. It should be an outstanding game. I’m looking forward to our guys coming out and hopefully playing with the energy you’ve got to play with this time of the year. Coming off a tough loss at Missouri where we are in position to win the game. That’s the thing we are trying to find that consistency, the consistency to play at a high level for 40 minutes. That’s when you start taking it to the next level. And with seven games left on our schedule that’s the mindset right now and the most important game is the Mississippi State game.”
Mississippi State started its season 12-1 in non-conference play, which included wins over Cincinnati, Clemson, and St. Mary’s College. But the Bulldogs lost their first two SEC games and have since bumped along in league play. An 81-62 home win over Alabama on Tuesday and an 81-75 win over Ole Miss in their most-recent road game could be indicators that the ‘Dogs are starting to gel at the right time of the season.
Mississippi State is a backcourt-oriented team — 4 guards are among the top 5 scorers — with size and beef inside to complement the perimeter players. The Bulldogs are averaging 78.6 points per game while shooting 47.3% field goals (including 37.5% from 3) and 72.8% free throws. The Bulldogs average 36.1 rebounds, 14.8 assists, 8.3 steals, 5.2 blocks, and 13.3 turnovers per game.
Quinndary Weatherspoon is an All SEC performer. The 6-4 senior leads MSU and is third in the SEC with 18.0 points per game to go with 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.6 steals in 33.7 minutes while shooting 50.5% field goals (including 39.6% from 3) and 83.6% free throws. His younger brother, 6-2 sophomore guard Nick Weatherson, is a former 5-star rated prospect who is averaging 9.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.3 steals in 27.8 minutes while shooting 47.6% field goals (including 38.5% from 3) and 70.2% free throws.
Junior 6-0 guard Lamar Peters — who appears on some 2019 NBA mock draft boards — is averaging 12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 30.0 minutes. Tyson Carter is a 6-4 junior who’s averaging 8.9 points in 21.8 minutes on 46.3% field goals (including 35.8% from 3) and 88.9% free throws. Robert Woodard is a 6-7 freshman wing who’s averaging 4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 15.0 minutes per game.
Aric Holman, a 6-10, 225-pound senior forward, is an inside-out scoring threat who averages 10.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 25.9 minutes while shooting 46.3% field goals (including 40.2% from 3) and 71.2% free throws. Abdul Ado, 6-11 and 255, is averaging 5.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game.
Freshman Reggie Perry — a 6-10, 245-pound freshman — was once committed to Arkansas for nearly a year before de-commiting and ultimatelty signing with the Bulldogs. A 5-star rated prospect and McDonald’s All American last season as a high school senior, Perry has played mostly in a reserve role with a few starts, averaging 8.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in 21.5 minutes while shooting 51.0% field goals and 70.3% free throws.
Arkansas could not overcome two poor halves defensively in their last two games — the Hogs gave up 46 second-half points and coughed up a 13-point lead in a 77-65 loss at South Carolina, followed by surrendering a 46-point first half that led to a 10-point deficit en route to a 79-78 loss at Missouri. The Hogs had been on a 4-game SEC win streak prior to that 2-game road dip, and they return home looking to get back on track.
“I thought for the first 28 minutes (at South Carolina) we played pretty good defense,” Anderson said. “We were tenacious and getting after it. I thought in the Missouri game we came out and were a little sluggish. I don’t know if it was the quick turnaround but we did have that energy in the second half. Because in the second half they only scored 33 points. So that’s why I talk about the consistency. You’ve got to do it for 40 minutes. You can’t do it for 20 minutes, or 25 minutes. That energy has got to be started at the beginning of the game through the middle of the game and finish the game.
“So the inconsistency is something we have to overcome, and sometimes that goes hand in hand with scoring. When you are scoring your energy level goes up. So we’ve got to be able, not necessarily just because we’re scoring, that we’re playing at a high level on defense. But give Missouri credit — they came out and made some shots. Even when you talk about South Carolina. South Carolina is a good basketball team.”
Even factoring his season-low 8-point performance against South Carolina last week, sophomore center Daniel Gafford has scored at a high level in Arkansas’s last four games by averaging 21.3 points in that span. On the season, the 6-11 El Dorado native leads the team in scoring (16.8 points, fourth SEC), rebounds (8.7, second SC), blocks (1.9, fifth SEC), and field goal percentage (67.2%, tops in the SEC).
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith is now Arkansas’s all-time freshman leader in 3-pointers made in a season with 86. He had 17 points and four made 3-pointers in the one-point loss at Missouri — his first made triple tied the previous freshman record-holder for made 3s at Arkansas, Rotnei Clarke, at 83. With at least eight more games left in 2018-19, Joe needs just 17 more made 3-pointers to tie Scotty Thurman for the most made 3s in single season (102) in school history. Joe is second on the team in scoring (14.2 points per game, which is second-most among SEC freshman), he leads the team in steals (1.5 steals) and drawn charges (20), and his 86 made 3-pointers and 43.9% shooting from 3 are both tops in the SEC.
“You think about him coming in, he was probably going to be one of those guys that kind of added on to what we already had,” Anderson said of Joe. “And now he was thrown into the fire. He had to be one of those guys to step up. And so for a young guy coming from high school … I think he’s done a really good job of coming in and trying to do the things we ask him to do, and playing at a high level. Knocking shots down, but he does more than knock shots down. He takes charges, he rebounds, he defends. You can see his future is real, real bright here in a Razorback uniform.”
Joe said he was glad he reached the freshman milestone but would have traded it for an Arkansas win.
“It’s a big honor, you know, to be able to break some of those records,” Joe said. “Not a lot of people get that opportunity, but at the same time I would have rather not broken the record and got the win. You don’t know how the game is going to go, but breaking a record is a great feeling and a big honor.”
After playing Mississippi State, the Hogs go back on the road next week against Auburn (7:30 p.m. CT, Wednesday, Feb. 20, SEC Network) before returning home to host Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. CT, Saturday, Feb. 23, SEC Network).
Hog food for Hog thought …
— The SEC did away with divisional play in basketball following the 2010-11 season — the league still has divisions in football and baseball, giving out rings to division winners annually in both sports — but looking back at the most-recent five seasons and over-laying the two-division set-up, Akansas would have finished first in the West three times (’13-14, ’14-15, and ’16-17) and second in the West once (’17-18). What’s the point? Given that the SEC had good reasons to do away with divisional play in hoops (done mostly to balance schedules and improve national perception of the league), and given that while flawed there are still good reasons to maintain divisional play in both football and basketball, it’s still interesting to put Arkansas’s success as the second- or third-winningest SEC team spanning the past 4-5 years in a different light for an alternative perspective. From ’95-96 through ’10-11 (again, that was the final season of SEC divisional play), Arkansas did not win the West once. In his 11 seasons as head coach with Arkansas as an SEC team, Nolan Richardson won 4 West division titles. The two coaches who followed him — Stan Heath and John Pelphrey — never finished first in the West.
— Prior to their two-game road swing against South Carolina and Missouri, the Razorbacks were considered a “Bubble” team in terms of their real-but-thin chances at getting an NCAA tournament at-large bid. Two losses later, the Hogs’ Bubble still has not burst as several college basketball gurus still mention Arkansas as a team squarely in the hunt for an NCAAT at-large bid next month. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas ranked Arkansas No. 43 out of his top 68 teams (the NCAAT field is exactly 68 teams) and included the Hogs in a tier of teams that he said “belongs in the tournament”; Jerry Palm, Bracketologist at CBSSports.com, has Arkansas projected in the NCAAT among his “First Four” as a 12-seed in a play-in game if the season ended today; Joe Lunardi, Bracketologist at ESPN.com, has Arkansas among his “Next Four Out”, meaning he has the Hogs in a group of 8 teams that are on the Bubble and just outside of making the 68-team NCAAT field if the season ended today; and Bracketville / NBCSports.com has the Hogs in a group of 5 teams currently on the wrong side of the Bubble and just missing the NCAAT if the season ended today.
— The Hogs are currently No. 67 in NCAA NET rankings, and their best wins are at No. 14 LSU and home against No. 50 Indiana. 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.
— With losing outcomes in their last two games being determined in the closing stages, the Razorbacks are now 8-8 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, at Texas Tech, at South Carolina, and at Missouri. The 8 losses were by a combined 35 points.
— Arkansas is still the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC at 66.0%, but in three consecutive games the Hogs converted in the mid-70s in percentage at the line. Arkansas was 15-of-20 on freebies against both Vanderbilt and South Carolina for 75% in each of those games, followed by a 17-of-23 effort against Missouri for 73.9%.