By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Three “Classics” down, two more to go for the Arkansas Razorbacks. After going 2-1 combined in the Armed Forces Classic (neutral-site loss against Texas in the season-opener) and the first two games of the Hardwood Classic (home wins over California-Davis and Indiana), Arkansas finishes up the “Classic” part of its schedule this week with Montana State on Wednesday and Texas-Arlington on Friday — the final two of the four Hardwood Classic games being played at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Both games are set for 7 p.m. starts, and both can be watched via live-stream as part of coverage provided by SEC Plus. If Arkansas can complete the Hardwood Classic with two more wins this week, the Hogs will enter December with a 4-1 record, which would be their third consecutive season going into the final month of the year with only one loss.
“It’s an opportunity for us to get better and find out a little more about this basketball team,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said of Wednesday night’s game against Montana State. “We had some guys that played a lot of extended minutes in the last game. So our bench is going to be critical of what we do and I think it’s going to be important in this game to get some guys some more minutes. Meaningful minutes that will benefit us as this season continues to unfold.
“Montana State, Indiana has already played them. So we are looking forward to having the opportunity of going out and seeing if we can get better.”
The Razorbacks could be bringing another player into the fold as soon as Wednesday night in freshman wing Jordan Phillips of Arlington, TX. Phillips returned to practice this week after being out for extended time recovering from a meniscus (knee) procedure that caused him to miss the entire preseason and the first three regular-season games.
“He practiced yesterday and he’ll practice today and hopefully have the opportunity to get some minutes in his first collegiate experience playing Division 1 basketball,” said Anderson, who made it clear he had not considered redshirting Phillips. “Jordan is a guy who can score, rebound, put the ball on the floor and has a high basketball IQ. He’s just got to get some seasoning. That’s all that is. He missed out on a lot of stuff, but like I said, for a guy that size, he’s athletic, can block shots and rebound, he tries to dunk on everybody.
“He’s another important piece to what we have. I think when you look at our team, he’s a versatile, big guard. He is a guard, so that’s the thing that excites me is that it gives us someone else people have to worry about.”
Behind the Herculean effort — and career night — of sophomore center Daniel Gafford, combined with a successful make-and-miss free throw strategy in the final 2.5 seconds of the game, Arkansas scratched out a 73-72 home win Sunday against previously unbeaten Indiana, a team that came to BWA with a 3-0 record, including a 96-73 win last Wednesday over then-No. 24 Marquette. It was Arkansas’s 42nd consecutive win at home after leading after halftime.
Gafford, consensus preseason All SEC 1st Team pick and on prestigious preseason watch lists for the Naismith, Wooden, and Abdul-Jabbar awards, scored a career-high 27 points — 19 in the second half, including a beast-mode 14 consecutive during a 7-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of the game –on 12-of-15 field goals and 3-of-8 free throws. He also put up 12 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals in his 31 minutes against the Hoosiers. Sophomore wing Mason Jones finished with 11 points (including the game-winning free throw), a game-high 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. Freshman guard Isaiah Joe had 13 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal.
Arkansas won points in the paint (38-30), points-off-turnovers (14-13), fast-break points (6-4), blocks/steals (15-5), and the Hogs’ bench was minus-one in scoring (14-13) against the Hoosiers’ reserves after being outscored in the first two games, 42-16. Arkansas’s defense was once again impressive, limiting an Indiana team that came in shooting better than 58% to 46.6%.
Anderson touched on his observations after watching tape of the Arkansas-Indiana game.
“I thought we had some guys that took some plays off,” Anderson said. “I thought there were some rebounding opportunities. I thought there were some execution opportunities where we had some fast-break opportunities we didn’t cash in on. But all in all I thought it was improvement from the previous two games. We’ve still got to get to that free throw line and make free throws at the right time. We were in same scenario as the Texas game. We had a chance go up four, making it a two-possession game, and we missed a free throw. And we were fortunate, like I said, to win that game.
“But I just think we’ve just got to keep pushing forward. Obviously Dan was very critical in that game. I thought he put us on his shoulders and our guys rode him. To me, that’s the beauty of it. You’ve got a guy you can go through and he’s not a selfish kid. But it flowed for him, everything came to him. I just thought our energy level was good, our kids fought in that game. It was a heck of a ballgame. Early on it was two good teams that went after it.”
Montana State (1-4) of the Big Sky conference comes to Fayetteville having already played a couple of Arkansas’s opponents — Indiana (an 80-35 loss) and Colorado State (an 81-77 loss). The Bobcats are led by 6-5 senior Tyler Hall, who averages 17.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.0 steal per game.
Texas-Arlington (3-2), the Hogs’ opponent on Friday, also comes to Fayetteville having already played a couple of Arkansas’s opponents — California-Davis (a 68-59 win) and Indiana (a 78-64 loss tonight in Bloomington, IN). The Mavericks are led by 5-9 junior Brian Warren’s 18.5 points per game.
Following the Montana State and UT-Arlington games this week, Arkansas is off until Dec. 1 when the Hogs host Florida International at BWA. Arkansas will play a total of six in-state games (five at home in Fayetteville, one in North Little Rock) 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.