By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — As if last week wasn’t painful enough for the Arkansas Razorbacks, who lost back-to-back home games that went to the wire, an upcoming mid-week road game against No. 3 Tennessee does not appear to be a prescription for healing and getting back on track.
The Hogs (10-5, 1-2 SEC) travel to Knoxville, TN, to take on the co-defending SEC champion Volunteers (14-1, 3-0 SEC) in a game scheduled to start shortly after 6 p.m. CT on Tuesday on ESPN2. Arkansas, which last week lost consecutive games at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville to drop to 2-4 in its last 6 games there, is looking to avoid a three-game losing skid against a Tennessee team that is undefeated at home (9-0) and riding an overall 10-game winning streak since falling to then-No. 2 Kansas, 87-81 in overtime, at a neutral site on Nov. 23.
The Hogs, who are 2-0 in true road games and 3-1 playing away from BWA so far in 2018-19, are in danger of starting their third consecutive season at 1-3 in SEC play. In ’16-17 and ’17-18, veteran Arkansas teams bounced back from those slow SEC starts to finish 12-6 and 10-8 in league play, respectively, on their way to earning at-large bids to the ’17 and ’18 NCAA tournaments.
“Well obviously it’s a big week.” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said on Monday. “We had a disappointing week last week. But it’s a big week here. We’re playing one of the better teams that’s playing right now in the country in this Tennessee team. So it’s a tremendous challenge but it’s a great opportunity for us to go out and to get better. We’re going to be playing, probably one of the more experienced teams playing one of the most inexperienced teams. We’ll get a few more questions answered about our basketball team.”
Arkansas was 1-1 last season against Tennessee — winning 95-93 in overtime at BWA in both teams’ league opener on Dec. 30, 2017, and losing 84-66 in the SEC tournament semifinals on March 10, 2018. In that SECT game, the Vols — who tied Auburn for the regular-season SEC title at 13-5 — jumped all over the Hogs early and led 48-29 at halftime after shooting 76% from the field (19-of-25 field goals), including 87.5% from 3 (7-of-8). That Tennessee team finished 26-9 after losing in the NCAA tournament Round of 32 against upstart Loyola-Chicago, which would advance to the Final Four.
Led by 2018 SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, a 6-7 junior forward, and 2018 All SEC 1st Teamer Admiral Schofield, a 6-6 senior forward, these Vols have made an ’18-19 mid-season case for being the best team in the country. Tennessee has won against then-No. 1 Gonzaga on a neutral court, Louisville on a neutral court, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and at Memphis in non-conference play. The Vols have started SEC play with double-digit-margin wins over Georgia, at Missouri, and at Florida, although the game against the Gators on Saturday was a one-possession affair in the final minute of the contest. Through its first 15 games, Tennessee has not revealed many weaknesses — the Vols are tops in the SEC in scoring (85.8 points per game), field goal shooting (51.5%), and assists (20.4 per game), and they’re third in rebounding (40.3) and blocks (6.0), fourth in free throw shooting (74.3%), and fifth in 3-point field goal shooting (35.3%).
Williams leads the league in scoring at 18.9 points per game to go with 7.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals while shooting 58.3% field goals, including 42.9% from 3, and 80.0% free throws. Schofield is second in the SEC in scoring at 17.7 points per game to go with 6.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists while shooting 52.0% field goals, including 44.6% from 3, and 71.9% free throws. Jordan Bone, a 6-3 junior point guard, is averaging 13.8 points and 6.2 assists. Senior 6-11 center Kyle Alexander and junior 6-5 wing Jordan Bowden are both scoring in double figures as each averages just over 10 points per game. Alexander also averages 7.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 68.6% from the field.
“Obviously, these guys are playing awfully well,” Anderson said. “Schofield and Williams are playing well. The Bowden kid and Bone. You think back on this team and they were young a couple of years ago when Rick got in here. And now, over the course of some seasoning, playing games, they’ve gained tremendous experience. But we’re in the SEC and every game is a big game. For us it’s another opportunity to go out and get better.
“For us, we’ve got to get better, really at getting off to a good start. I think that’s going to be a big key in trying to finish the game the right way. Tennessee is a very physical basketball team. They’ve got multiple scorers. Five guys in double figures. They’ve got depth. All the things you look for in a team. For our guys to go out, we’re going to have to play at a high, high level. We look forward to going out and seeing where we are.”
Arkansas’s two consecutive SEC home losses last week were different and similar at the same time — the Hogs scored a season-low in points against Florida last Wednesday after erasing a 16-point second-half deficit with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final half-minute before losing 57-51, then they busted out of a seven-game scoring slump against LSU on Saturday with their most productive outing in over a month and erased a 13-point second-half deficit before falling 94-88 in overtime. Arkansas has lost its 5 games by a combined total of 19 points — that’s a 3.8-point-margin per loss.
The Razorbacks were picked in the preseason to finish no better than 10th in the 14-team SEC with 9 newcomers among the 12 on scholarship who are available to play. They’re led by preseason All SEC 1st Team pick and sophomore center Daniel Gafford, who leads the Hogs in each of these four categories: scoring (17.5 points per game, tied for third in SEC), rebounds (9.5, tied for first in the SEC), blocks (2.2, fourth in the SEC), and field goal shooting (65.8%, first in the SEC). Gafford, who has seven double-doubles (double-digits in scoring and rebounding in the same game) to lead the SEC in that category, is coming off a career-high 32 points in the loss against LSU.
Sophomore-transfer wing Mason Jones is second on the Hogs in scoring (14.8 points per game, 10th in the SEC), rebounding (4.9), and assists (3.1). Jones, who combined for 52 points in Arkansas’s last two games and has scored at least 21 points in 3 of the Hogs’ last 5 contests, leads the SEC’s worst free throw shooting team at 82.7% from the line.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe is third in scoring for Arkansas (14.1 points per game), but he’s been in a scoring drought of late. The SEC’s leading 3-point shooter from Fort Smith scored in double figures in Arkansas first 13 games, but he failed to do so in each of the last two games and had a season-low 5 points with no made 3-pointers (a first so far in ’18-19) against LSU. Joe leads the SEC in made 3s (51); he leads Arkansas in 3-point field goal percentage (43.2%), steals (1.5), and drawn charges (11); and he’s second on the team in free throw percentage (70.7%).
Sophomore-transfer point guard Jalen Harris is second in the SEC in assists (6.5), and his 4.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is among the best in the nation. Freshman forward Reggie Chaney, who has started once this season, is coming off arguably his best game against LSU: 12 points (6-of-8 field goals and 0-of-1 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 27 minutes off the bench before fouling out in overtime.
“(Arkansas is) going to get after it and they’re going to make you handle the ball,” said Vols head coach Rick Barnes, who’s in his fourth season at Tennessee. “They’re offensively very fast, a team that runs a really good random motion offense that we haven’t seen at this point in time — the movement they bring to it.”
Anderson sees experience being as big a factor as any going into this game.
“You can’t teach experience,” he said. “It’s a process you’ve got to go through, and those guys (Tennessee) went through it. They took some lumps early on in those years, but we saw the process, the maturity, take place. Of course, Rick has added some really quality pieces … We’re at the stage right now with a lot of young guys, and so they have to go through the process. Sometimes there are some hard knocks, some tough losses. With every one of our games you look at the free throw line, you look at the turnovers, the rebounding. We’re just a few plays away, and so can we get over that hurdle? Of course, it’s going to be a big hurdle going against Tennessee, but it’s something we look forward to.”
Anderson also talked about the recent struggles of Joe, who is averaging just 8.3 points in league play on 7-of-23 field goals (30.4%), including 5-of-17 from 3 (29.4%), and 3-of-7 free throws (42.9%).
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of setting screens for him, getting him open,” Anderson said. “We saw him actually cutting and curling to the basket. He’s just got to be able to make plays when he does that. A couple of times he went in there, and I think as he curled he lost the ball. He’s got to constantly be in motion. The fastbreak, pushing it, and people are going to start paying a lot of attention. I think Daniel’s been the recipient of that, because they’re spacing the floor in terms of trying to cover Isaiah, they’re covering Mason over here, and it’s opening up the lanes. J5 (Harris) can get in there and we’re moving Daniel around, so now Daniel is the recipient of that. But I think (Joe has) just got to continue to work.”
Things don’t get easier for Arkansas after the Tennessee game. The Hogs travel Saturday to play upstart and 18th-ranked Ole Miss (13-2, 3-0 SEC), they return home to play Missouri (9-5, 0-2 SEC) on Jan. 23, and then its back on the road against No. 8 Texas Tech (14-1) on Jan. 26 in the Big XII-SEC Challenge.
Hog food for Hog thought …
— The last time the Hogs lost four games at Bud Walton Arena in a season was 2015-16, when Arkansas would finished 16-16 overall and 9-9 in the SEC. But, the fourth loss was against South Carolina on March 5, 2016, in the final league game of the season, so the ’18-19 Hogs will have to go unbeaten in their final 7 home games just to match that home-loss record, which is the worst in Mike Anderson’s 8 seasons as Head Hog. Counting a loss to Mercer in North Little Rock in December 2015, Arkansas dropped 5 in-state games in ’15-16.
— After starting the season 6-1 and climbing to No. 32 on the NCAA’s NET rating — which replaces RPI this season to help the NCAA tournament selection committee determine at-large bids and seeding — Arkansas has bumped along 4-4 in its past eight games (including 2-4 at home) and is currently ranked No. 75.
— Arkansas is 1-1 against the current NCAA NET Top 25 — a 73-72 home win over No. 21 Indiana in November, and a 94-88 overtime home loss Saturday against No. 25 LSU — with 7 more games (6 on the road, 1 at home) upcoming against the current NCAA NET Top 25 … at No. 4 Texas Tech, at No. 5 Tennessee, at No. 11 Kentucky, at No. 17 Auburn, home-and-away against No. 24 Ole Miss, and at No. 25 LSU.
— Arkansas is 1-3 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 40-81 — a road win against No. 81 Texas A&M, a neutral-site loss against No. 50 Texas, and home losses against No. 40 Florida and No. 73 Georgia Tech — with 8 upcoming games (6 at home, 2 on the road) against the current NCAA NET Nos. 34-81 — home-and-away against each of No. 72 Vanderbilt and No. 85 Missouri, plus home games against No. 34 Mississippi State, No. 60 Alabama, No. 70 Georgia, and No. 81 Texas A&M.
— Arkansas is 8-1 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 101-plus — the loss being against No. 113 Western Kentucky at home — with 1 upcoming game against the current NCAA NET Nos. 101-plus — at No. 133 South Carolina.
— Arkansas had a 30-point scorer in each of its last two games — 30 by sophomore wing Mason Jones against Florida on Wednesday, and 32 by sophomore center Daniel Gafford against LSU on Saturday. Counting freshman guard Isaiah Joe’s 34 points against Florida International on Dec. 1, the Hogs have had three different 30-point scorers so far on the season.
— Arkansas is now 5-5 in one- or two-possession games inside of 2 minutes to play — the wins coming against Indiana (12-4, currently ranked No. 25 by the Associated Press), Texas-San Antonio (10-7), Texas State (14-3), Austin Peay (12-5), and at Texas A&M (7-7), and the losses coming against LSU (12-3) in overtime, Florida (9-6), Texas (10-6) in overtime, Western Kentucky (8-8), and Georgia Tech (10-6). The five losses were by a combined 19 points, and Arkansas led inside of the final 30 seconds against both Texas and Western Kentucky, it led inside the final two minutes against Georgia Tech, it had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final 30 seconds against Florida, and it led by two points in overtime against LSU.
— As poorly as Arkansas shot from the free throw line in its first eight games — 62.7% — the Hogs’ 72-plus-% effort over a 4-game stretch brought the team up to 65.8% heading into the start of SEC play. But alas, the Hogs rediscovered their old inefficient ways at the line, combining for only 43-of-76 (56.6%) in their first three SEC games against Texas A&M, Florida, and LSU. Arkansas is the worst free throw shooting team in the league (64.0%), and in their 5 losses the Hogs are a woeful 61-of-103 (59.2%) from the line.
— Aside from Mason Jones’s combined 6-of-14 (42.9%) shooting from 3 in Arkansas’s last 2 games against Florida and LSU, the rest of the Razorbacks combined for only 3-of-28 (10.7%) from behind the arc in those two home losses.
— Although Arkansas could not seem to defend LSU (the Tigers shot 33-of-64 field goals for 51.6%, including a 10-of-25 effort from 3 for 40%), defense continues to be the Hogs’ strong suit this season: 30.3% opposition field goal shooting, 29.9% opposition 3-point field goal shooting, 16.1 opposition turnovers per game (UA is plus-2.7 per game), and a 209-126 steals/blocks advantage (UA is plus 5.5 per game).