By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks earned three wins in six days last week to cap November with a 4-1 start to the season, and after an eight-day break between games they look for their 5th consecutive win Saturday as Florida International invades Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The Hogs and Golden Panthers (7-1) will tip around 7 p.m. CT, and the game can be seen via livestream coverage provided by SEC Plus.
After pumping the brakes for over a week, the Razorbacks are revving things back up for a run-and-fun Golden Panthers team that is approaching the century mark in per-game scoring.
“We turn our attention to play against a Florida International team that’s really playing pretty good basketball,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said Thursday during his press conference. “One of the top scoring teams in the country and assists, one of the top in steals, creating turnovers and possessions. It’s a game for our guys and for them that’s going to be an up and down game.
“Two teams that are not going to hold the basketball and try to create havoc with their defense. I think that’s what they try to do and obviously that’s what we’re going to do.”
Arkansas comes into the game playing some of its best defense under Anderson. Statistically, the defensive numbers look good: Field goal percentage (35.6%), 3-point field goal percentage (29.8%), opposition turnovers (19.8, Hogs are plus-4.8 per game), and steals/blocks (70, Hogs are plus-6.8 per game).
But the Razorbacks’ squad full of charge-taking, deflection-getting, halfcourt-grinding defenders will be challenged by a Florida International team that likes to play a full-court transition game. The Golden Panthers come in averaging 97 points per outing (on 48.4% overall field goal shooting).
Florida International is led by four players who average double-figures scoring. Senior 5-10 guard Brian Beard, Jr., is averaging 22.0 points (50.5% field goals), 7.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.3 steals, while 6-6 junior forward Devon Andrews is averaging 18.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.
Like Arkansas, Florida International is in the midst of a 4-game winning streak, which includes an 81-80 road win on Wednesday over Florida Gulf Coast.
Arkansas’s 19.8 opposition turnovers is third in the country, while FIU’s 19.0 is fourth. The Golden Panthers have the best turnover ratio in the nation (plus- 9.9 per game).
“The Beard kid is a really good basketball player, really clever,” Anderson said. “He leads them in scoring and I think assists and is probably second or third in rebounding. He’s a really good basketball player. But they’ve got multiple guys. They are really dangerous in transition.
“I’m more interested in our guys coming out and getting better. We’ve had a week’s time since we had a game. We played last Friday and now — after it seems like we had games every other day — we get this little lull. So I’m sure our guys are anxious to play somebody other than themselves.”
Arkansas is led by 6-11 sophomore center Daniel Gafford of El Dorado — his 19.2 points is second in the SEC, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks are both fifth in the league, and his 72.5% field goal shooting is tops in the SEC. After missing 7 field goals (8-of-15) in the season-opening loss to Texas, Gafford has missed only 7 field goals combined in Arkansas’s current 4-game winning streak.
Gafford has improved after a shaky start in the turnover department, registering only 6 giveaways combined in the last three games after losing the ball 12 times in the Hogs’ first two contests. Gafford’s 9-of-10 free throw effort in Arkansas’s last outing against Texas-Arlington — a 78-60 home win — was a significant step up at the line, raising him to 57.9% on the season.
Aside from Gafford, freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe is the only other Razorback to score in double figures in every game (his 12.8 points is third on the team), and he leads Arkansas in steals (2.0 per game) and is one of the leaders in defensive deflections and taking charges.
Anderson was asked if he was surprised by Joe’s knack for drawing charges.
“No, I saw that when we recruited him,” Anderson said. “I saw him as being one of those guys that’s going to be a total player. I think he handles the ball well, he can pass the basketball. He’s got a good basketball IQ. He’s pretty much in position (to take charges). That’s all about IQ and reading the floor, help position. I saw that even when he was coming. They’ve done a pretty good job with him.
“He’s a well-rounded player. Obviously, his best basketball is going to be in front of him. He’s just got to continue to mature and get stronger.”
Joe touched on the challenge of playing against a fast-paced FIU squad.
“Since they play with a similar style as we play, they shouldn’t hit us with anything we won’t expect,” Joe said. “We’ve seen it all pretty much in the games in the past. Everything we’ve seen before so we’re just going out there to play ball.”
Arkansas has also gotten solid production and efficiency from junior forward Adrio Bailey, who’s averaging 11.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.4 points while shooting 64.5% field goals and 71.4% free throws.
Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris is averaging 8.6 points and 2.8 rebounds, but his 5.8 assists against only 1.2 turnovers has made the greatest impact for an Arkansas team that is second in the SEC in assists per game (17.2).
Sophomore wing Mason Jones is second on the team in scoring (13.0), rebounds (5.4), and assists (3.0).
Heading up the second unit is freshman forward Reggie Chaney, whose per-40-minutes rebounding (12.4) and blocks (3.4) are tops on the team.
The Florida International game on Saturday is the first of six in-state games (five at home in Fayetteville, one in North Little Rock) for Arkansas in December, including Western Kentucky at BWA on Dec. 8 and Georgia Tech at BWA on Dec. 19. The Razorbacks play only once more outside the state of Arkansas — at Colorado State on Dec. 5 — before opening up SEC play at Texas A&M on Jan. 5, 2019.