By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks are on the verge of having their first season with multiple 4-game losing streaks in nearly a decade as they venture into a mid-week SEC road game against the Auburn Tigers.
Arkansas (14-11, 5-7 SEC) will face Auburn (17-8, 6-6 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. CT tonight in Auburn, AL, in a game being televised by SEC Network. The Hogs have lost three straight games — their longest skid since losing 4 in a row early in SEC play — and a loss against the Tigers would give Arkansas its first multiple 4-game skid since the 2009-10 season (John Pelphrey’s third campaign that saw three 4-games-or-more losing streaks).
Meanwhile, co-defending SEC champion Auburn is looking for its second consecutive win following a road victory Saturday at Vanderbilt. Arkansas and Auburn have split their last 4 meetings. The Razorbacks are 3-5 in true road games — including 2-4 in SEC road games — and they’re 4-6 in all games this season played outside their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
“We are going on the road against an Auburn team that’s 6-6 in league play,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his Monday press conference. “Obviously has been in the Top 10, 20 all year long. They’ve got a dynamite backcourt. That’s something we really have to contend with and guard on the perimeter. (Chuma) Okeke is a guy that’s really gotten better and of course the big (Austin) Wiley they have inside. It’s a team that plays well at home. They have a good environment. So it’s a great opportunity for us and a challenge at the same time.”
Much like Mississippi State — the Bulldogs’ used a 23-3 run to start the second half en route to a 77-67 win over Arkansas on Saturday — Auburn’s success begins with a veteran backcourt and prolific 3-point shooting. Senior guard Bryce Brown is second in the SEC in made 3-pointers (85) and he’s averaging 16.2 points in 31.6 minutes per game on 43.2% field goals (including 40.5% from 3) and 83.6% free throws. Point guard Jared Harper, a 5-11 junior, averages 15.4 points and 6.2 assists (second in the SEC) in 33.4 minutes while shooting 40.4% from the field (including 38.2% from 3) and 82.2% free throws. Big guards / wings Samir Doughty (a 6-4 junior transfer from Virginia Commonwealth) and Malik Dunbar (a 6-6 senior) combine for 15.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Chuma Okeke, a strong 6-8 sophomore forward, is an inside-out threat who averages 11.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 1.2 blocks in 29.1 minutes while shooting 49.8% from the field (including 34.8% from 3) and 68.3% free throws. Forwards Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer are combining for 13.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blockers per game. Junior center Austin Wiley — 6-11, 260, once a 5-star prospect in high school — had missed missed several games at the start of league play but returned to play sparingly in the Tigers’ last four games. He’s averaging 8.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 15.2 minutes per game.
Auburn is averaging 81.7 points per game (third in the SEC) with 274 made 3-pointers (first in the SEC) while shooting 37.3% from behind the arc (first in the SEC). The Tigers average 37.8 rebounds, 15.2 assists (third SEC), 9.1 steals (second SEC), 5.2 blocks, and 13.1 turnovers per game while shooting 45.3% overall field goals and 70.0% free throws.
Arkansas, which suffered 20 turnovers (10 in each half) in Saturday’s home loss against Mississippi State, will be looking to minimize the miscues while also competing on the glass.
“One of the things I want to see us do is really value the basketball,” Anderson said. “One of the things that we always talk about as characteristics of our team is that we defend and try to create tempo, create turnovers and take care of the basketball. The last two games, especially the live-ball turnovers that kind of turn you in, especially against Mississippi State. For 20 minutes I thought we played well. We had some turnovers but they were more dead ball turnovers. But the live-ball ones are the ones you can’t get back. What happens is you dig a hole for yourself. That’s something we are looking to shore up.
“With our basketball team we are always talking about if we are lacking in one area we try to pick up something. The rebounding has gotten better and we’ve been defending at a pretty good pace but now the thing that has to take place is we have to take care of the basketball. And hopefully we can continue to create turnovers and create tempo with our defense.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Monday talked about his team’s matchup against a young Arkansas squad.
“Mike’s got a deep, young talented team, but they are young,” Pearl said. “They’ve had some great, great wins this year. Of course going to LSU was a great win for them. They played them well twice. They’ve been road-tested. They’ve won three games on the road. They had Texas Tech and really represented our conference well in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“(Daniel) Gafford is a handful. Arkansas scored 77 on us at home last year and 92 I think it was up there at Arkansas. That loss cost us the outright SEC regular-season championship. They had a good veteran team last year and did a great job on us and really scored at will. So we’re going to have to do a better job defensively against Arkansas if we hope to beat them this time.”
Gafford, the Hogs’ sophomore center, has had two season-low scoring performances — 8 points against both South Carolina and Mississippi State — during the Hogs’ current 3-game losing streak. As a freshman last season, the 6-11 El Dorado native led Arkansas with 21 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks, and 2 assists in 27 minutes as Arkansas defeated then-No. 12 Auburn, 91-82, at BWA on Feb. 27, 2018. Gafford leads the Hogs in scoring (16.2 points per game, fourth in SEC), rebounds (8.8, second in SEC), blocks (2.0, fourth in SEC), and field goal percentage (66.1%).
Sophomore wing Mason Jones is second in scoring (14.4 points), rebounds (4.2), and assists (3.0) and he’s first on the team in free throw shooting (80.5%). Jones tied his career-high with 30 points Saturday in the loss to MSU.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe is third on the team in scoring (13.8 points), first in steals (1.5), and he leads the SEC in made 3-pointers (87) and 3-point field goal percentage (43.3%).
Next up for the Hogs is a return home to host Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. CT, Saturday, Feb. 23, SEC Network).
Hog food for Hog thought …
— Even with its current 3-game losing streak, Arkansas is still considered a “Bubble” team in terms of its real-but-thin chances at getting an NCAA tournament at-large bid as Joe Lunardi, Bracketologist for ESPN, currently 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.
— The Hogs are currently No. 70 in NCAA NET rankings, and their best wins are at No. 14 LSU and home against No. 55 Indiana. Auburn is currently No. 24 in the NCAA NET rankings. 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.
— Sophomore wing Mason Jones has two 30-point games on the season — Saturday against Mississippi State and in January against Florida. Both were home games at BWA, both times he was the only Razorback to score in double-figures, and both resulted in losses. Not Jones’s fault as he carried the Hogs in both contests, just illustrates the importance of having balance in production.
— With 6 remaining regular-season games and at least one SEC tournament game, freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe needs just 15 more made 3-pointers to tie Scotty Thurman for most made 3-pointers in a season in school history. Joe’s 87 makes from distance are the most for an Arkansas freshman in a season — a standard he set against Missouri last week — and with 15 more he’ll tie Thurman at 102. Joe averages 3.48 made 3s per game, and at that pace he would tie or exceed Thurman’s mark in the next 5 games.
— Arkansas is still the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC at 66.3%, but in four 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% and a 16-of-21 mark against Mississippi State for 76.2%.