By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — As the Arkansas Razorbacks near the turn for the second half of SEC play, recent history suggests their best basketball may still be ahead of them.
The Hogs (13-8, 4-4 SEC) — winners of their last three SEC games after a thrilling, roller-coaster 90-89 road win over then-No. 19 LSU on Saturday — look to close out the first half of SEC play with a winning league record as the Vanderbilt Commodores (9-12, 0-8 SEC) invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a mid-week game hoping to end a 9-game losing streak. The two teams will tip off shortly after 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday in a game being televised by SEC Network.
Just a few weeks ago, the Razorbacks suffered through a 4-game losing streak — the first such skid in Mike Anderson’s eight seasons at Arkansas — while getting out of the gates 1-4 for 11th place in league play. Similar to Arkansas teams in 2016-17 (started 1-3 but stood 5-3 after 8 league games) and ’17-18 (started 1-3 but stood 4-4 after 8 league games), these Hogs appear to have corrected their course heading into the final third of the regular season — also known as the final 10 games. The ’16-17 Hogs went 7-3 in their final 10 games to finish third in the SEC at 12-6 while locking up an NCAA tounament at-large bid, while the ’17-18 Hogs finished 6-4 for fourth place in the SEC at 10-8 while also securing an NCAA tournament at-large bid. While it remains to be seen how this much younger version of the Razorbacks finishes out the regular season, they have at least positioned themselves to be in the conversation for postseason play coming down the stretch in a league that currently projects 7 to 8 teams to the NCAA tournament.
It appears Vanderbilt, which won on the road against Southern Cal and defeated then-No. 18 Arizona State while going 9-4 in non-conference play, is heading in an opposite direction relative to Arkansas’s recent ascention in SEC play. Still, it’s not lost on Anderson that there are no off-nights in the SEC.
“Every week the games get bigger,” Anderson said Monday during his press conference. “We’ve got a Vanderbilt team that’s got a very good basketball team. They had a tough year starting off losing one of their better players, the (Darius) Garland kid, that got hurt. But they took Tennessee to overtime, had a chance to beat them at their place. We all know they are capable of shooting and of course Bryce (Drew, Vanderbilt’s head coach) does a great job with the young guys. They have a young team very much like we do. So this time of year you are trying to find ways to win and trying to protect the home court so it should be a good game against a Vanderbilt team that has all their guys that can shoot from the perimeter. So our defense has got to really be good.”
The ‘Dores have been without Garland since the fifth game of the season. A highly regarded freshman, Garland was leading the ‘Dores in scoring (16.2 points) through the first five games when he suffered a season-ending knee injury and subsequently announced he will forego the remainder of his college career and will enter the 2019 NBA Draft.
Sophomore 6-2 guard Saban Lee has picked up the slack, leading the way at 13.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.0 steals in 31.0 minutes per game while shooting 45.4% field goals (including 30.8% from 3) and 0.3% free throws. Simisola Shittu, a 6-10 freshman, is averaging 12.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in 27.8 minutes per game while shooting 47.4% from the field and 61.7% from the free throw line. Aaron Nesmith, a 6-6 freshman, is averaging 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game while shooting 44.0% field goals (including 37.3% from 3) and 79.2% free throws.
Vanderbilt — 74.2 points, 36.3 rebounds, 12.4 assists, 4.6 steals, 4.2 blocks, and 12.4 turnovers per game — have 9 players averaging at least 14 minutes of playing time per outing. In their last game, the ‘Dores lost to Missouri on the road, 77-67. But four games ago, Vanderbilt took No. 1 Tennessee to overtime before losing, 88-83.
“The mindset from the inside is good,” Drew said of his young team in light of its 9-game skid. “Guys are working hard every day, guys are talking to each other. Guys are working on improving. We all realize that from our 4-0 start to where we are now, we didn’t envision this. But we have no option but to try to fight through it and try to keep getting better. So from a coaching standpoint I am very encouraged by the attitude of our young guys.
“Losing is not fun, and losing magnifies everything. Especially when you have a younger team that’s pretty much together for the first time and hasn’t gone through winning or losing together. It’s really starting to build a bond. A bond that inside our walls, this is what we can control. And our guys, I think are fighting though it the best that they can.”
Arkansas, currently in a 6-way tie for 5th place in league play, was picked no higher in the preseason than 10th in the 14-team SEC. The Hogs have 8 newcomers among the 11 on scholarship who are available to play. After building an 18-point lead just a few minutes into the second half Saturday on the road against then-SEC-co-leader LSU, Arkansas’s youth and inexperience started to show as the Tigers employed an effective full-court press that helped them get on a 41-22 run to pull ahead, 89-88, with 2:01 to play.
After both teams missed on opportunities to score, Arkansas capitalized on an LSU turnover and cashed it in when 6-5 sophomore wing Mason Jones worked the Tigers’ 5-11 star point guard Tremont Waters down into the paint before finishing at the rim to give the Hogs a 90-89 lead with 23 seconds left in the game. The Hogs survived three LSU shot attempts in the final 16 seconds for their first road win over a ranked team in nearly two years, and it also snapped a 3-game losing stretch against LSU.
It was Arkansas’s best offensive performance in some time. The Razorbacks shot 35-of-60 from the field (58.3%), including 13-of-24 from 3 (54.2%), while outscoring LSU by 26 points from the field. Arkansas needed that wide-gap from the field as the Tigers enjoyedf a grossly lopsided advantage in fouls (29-18) and free throws (32-of-38 for 84.2% compared to the Hogs’ 7-of-11 for 63.3%. LSU dominated rebounds (44-20) and second-chance-points (21-6) while Arkansas narowly won the turnover battle (21-18) and points-off-turnovers (24-21).
Arkansas got offensive and defensive boosts from its starters and its bench in what was arguably the best all-around, total-team effort of the season.
“It seems like each month they are starting to grasp the things we want to see,” Anderson said of his team. “I saw the enthusiasm, the passion in that LSU game. We’ve had some tough losses going to Texas Tech. We were in position to win that game and win a lot of games. But just to see the guys finish. I think that was the key. We had some adversity in the LSU game. We’re up 18 and they get back and get the lead. But the thing I didn’t see our guys do was panic.
“So from the standpoint of where this team started out in November to where they got in December and then of course once you get into conference play I thought we got knocked up on the back of our heels. I think we are starting slowly to recover from it. And a lot of that has to do with Daniel (Gafford) and Adrio Bailey and Gabe Osabuohien that came back from last year’s team showing the younger guys. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
Gafford, who had a career-high 32 points to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in the Hogs’ overtime loss against LSU last month, followed up with another impressive performance inside against the Tigers on Saturday. His 23 points came on 11-of-15 field goals and 1-of-2 free throws, and he pitched in 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 32 minutes before fouling out wiht 2:01 to play. In two games against LSU’s tall, long, and talented frontline, Gafford made a combined 25-of-34 field goals for 73.5%. The 6-11 sophomore and El Dorado native — preseason All SEC 1st team pick and recently named to the Sporting News’ mid-season All American 3rd team — leads the Hogs in scoring (16.3 points per game, sixth in SEC), rebounding (8.9, second in SEC), blocks (2.0, seventh in SEC), and field goal percentage (66.7%, first in SEC. Gafford has constantly faced double- and triple-teams and collapsing zone defenses during the season. Consequently, Gafford had seen his shot attempts and scoring take a dip in recent weeks before a resurgene against LSU.
Freshman Isaiah Joe battled through a cold / virus that had limited his effectiveness in back-to-back games against Texas Tech and Georgia by scoring 18 points (6-of-13 field goals, including 4-of-8 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in a team-high 34 minutes in the win over LSU. Joe, who had only 8 points combined while dealing with illness against Texas Tech and Georgia last week, scored 15 of his points in that roller-coaster second half against LSU. Prior to the last three games, Joe had scored 57 combined points on 17-of-34 from 3 (50%) in three straight games against Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Missouri. The 6-5 shooting guard from Fort Smith is tied for second on the team in scoring (14.0 points per game), he leads the team in steals (1.5, seventh in SEC), and he leads the team in 3-pointers made and 3-point field goal percentage (73 makes from 3 is second in the SEC, and 43.5% 3-point shooting is also second in the SEC).
Jones finished with 10 points (3-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3), 4 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal in 32 minutesin the win over LSU, including the aforementioned game-winning basket. The 6-5 wing from DeSoto, TX, is tied for second on the team in scoring (14.0 points per game, he’s second on the team in both rebounds (4.6) and assists (3.0), and he’s tops on the team in free throw percentage (80.2%).
“Well, he had been scoring and I thought we had the floor spaced out,” Anderson said while reflecting on his team’s final offensive possession that led to Jones’s game-winner. “You’ve got to have somebody make a play and why not have the floor spaced out? And the play may be for him to get to the hole or find the right guy at the basket. That was one of the things I liked. He’s a good free throw shooter so you’ve got to have the ball in the guy’s hands that can make plays. Jalen Harris wasn’t out there. The next logical choice was going to be Mason in that particular game. There have been games we had the same scenario and we didn’t make the play. So we were fortunate to make the play.”
Harris, the 6-2 sophomore-transfer point guard, had his third-consecutive double-figures scoring game, chipping in 11 points (5-of-7 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3) to go with a team-high-tying 5 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal in 24 minutes. His 3-pointer with 4:32 to play lifted the Hogs to an 84-79 lead, and he would foul out 10 seconds later. Harris is fourth in the SEC in assists at 5.9 per game, and his 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is second best in the league.
Arkansas got significant contributions from its bench against LSU, most notably from freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien. Embery-Simpson tied his career-high with 16 points (6-of-9 field goals, including 4-of-6 from 3) in 22 minutes, including 13 in the first half that helped the Hogs to a 45-41 lead at the break. Osabuohien played only 16 minutes before fouling out with 7:30 left in the game, but he had 3 points, a career-high and team-high-tying 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 3 drawn charges.
“We are finding out our roles with what everybody needs to do,” Embery-Simpson said during Monday’s press conference. “Especially on the defensive end, locking down on defense. We’re letting the offense come to us, moving, passing, cutting and it makes everybody better.”
Osabuohien talked about his facilitating from the combo-4 forward position, as well as his knack for drawing charges.
“We were shooting the ball very well at LSU so I was able to find the open shooters — Isaiah and Keyshawn,” Osabuohien said. “Also, we have Dan in the paint and when he gets the ball it’s almost guaranteed a bucket or a foul. So, getting him the ball and all them helped me out by making their shots.
“I remember taking the charges in the game, it feels good. They were big momentum plays hearing the loud crowd at LSU, and then being able to silence them with a charge and know it’s going back the other way, it feels good.”
After hosting Vanderbilt, the Hogs hit the road again for games against South Carolina (Saturday, Feb. 9, 2:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network) amd Missouri (Tuesday, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. CT, ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU).
Hog food for Hog thought …
— Apparently, a road win against a Top 20 team — both in the human polls and in the NCAA NET rankings that replaced RPI this season — goes a long way. The Hogs jumped from No. 68 to No. 57 in NCAA NET rankings, and they went from being off the NCAA tournament at-large-bid radar to being squarely on the “Bubble”, at least according to Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com as he had Arkansas among the “First 4 Out” in his post-weekend update of his Bracketology that projects the 68-team NCAA tournament field that will ultimately be announced in mid-March. 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 the last-minute, come-from-behind win over LSU, the Razorbacks are now 6-6 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, and at LSU, and the losses coming against Texas in overtime, Western Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Florida, LSU in overtime, and at Texas Tech. The 6 losses were by a combined 22 points.
— Arkansas needs five wins in its final five home games — Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Alabama — to avoid the first 5-home-loss season in Anderson’s tenure as Head Hog. Arkansas has lost four games at Bud Walton Arena so far in ’18-19, matching the ’15-16 Hogs squad that finished 16-16 overall and 9-9 in the SEC. But, the fourth home loss for that team was against South Carolina on March 5, 2016, in the final home game of the season. Counting a loss to Mercer in North Little Rock in December 2015, that ’15-16 Arkansas team dropped 5 in-state games.
— Arkansas is 1-3 against the current NCAA NET Top 25, 1-3 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 26-50, 2-1 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 51-100, and 9-1 against the current NCAA NET Nos. 100-plus … the Hogs have two more games against the current NCAA NET Top 25, three more games against the current NCAA NET Nos. 26-50, and five more against the NCAA NET Nos. 51-plus.
— While acknowledging rough defensive performances against LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss in a 3-game losing stretch when the Hogs gave up a combined 284 points, defense continues to be Arkansas’s strong suit in ’18-19: 40.7% opposition field goal shooting, 31.9% opposition 3-point field goal shooting, 16.8 opposition turnovers per game (UA is plus-3.0 per game), 8.2 steals per game (3rd SEC), 5.2 blocks per game (5th SEC) … Arkansas has forced 82 turnovers combined in its last 4 games … according to KenPom ratings, Arkansas ranks third in the SEC and 42nd in the nation in overall defensive efficiency.
— Arkansas has been clobbered on the glass in its last 2 games as Georgia and LSU combined to outrebound the Hogs, 100-52, while winning second-chance-points by a combined 38-11 … the Razorbacks are 12th in the SEC in rebounding at 35.7 boards per game.