Mike Anderson / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The old adage of it’s not where you start but where you finish would be an apt motto for Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson’s current Razorbacks basketball team.
Even though his Hogs sit at 4-4 at the moment, he’s encouraged by the progress the Razorbacks have made over the last month, and particularly in the last three weeks.
The Razorbacks are 2-3 during that period. Tough losses to Georgia Tech (83-73), and Stanford (69-66) in the NIT Tipoff and on the road to Wake Forest (88-85) haven’t gone for naught. All have been learning experiences that have helped improve the Hogs, Anderson said.
“We’re seeing improvement and a better understanding among the players,” Anderson said. “It’s not always showing up in the win column, but it will pay off as we move down the line this season.”
The Razorbacks aren’t rebuilding in Anderson’s fifth season as the Hogs’ head coach. Anderson’s program has an established culture and a strong identity. It’s in better shape from an academic standpoint than it’s been in decades. There is a structure in place, and Anderson plans to build on it.
However, with the unexpected early exits of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls for the NBA after their sophomore and junior seasons respectively, Anderson is working with a reshuffled deck, one admittedly not as talented.
It also did not help matters when two of Anderson’s more experienced players ran afoul of the law in the summer. Along with redshirting transfer Dustin Thomas, returning starting guard Anton Beard and key backup forward Jacorey Williams were arrested on counterfeit charges.
Anderson booted Williams from the team after an altercation with his girlfriend and a bouncer at a bar also came to light, but Beard rejoined the team from suspension in November after a plea bargain with prosecutors allowed him to enter a drug court diversion program. Beard will be allowed to play at the end of the current semester. Anderson said Wednesday he would comment on Thomas’ situation with the team at a later date.
Moses Kingsley / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
“Those things have taken place and we’re moving on,” Anderson said. “I think we are picking up the pieces and moving forward. I’m excited about what is taking place here now and what’s coming in the future.”
Adjustments are being made on the court as the Razorbacks go. Role players a year ago are now starters. It is taking time for the Hogs to find their roles and for Anderson to find the best way to deploy them in his system.
“I’m having to learn them, and they are having to learn about me in their different roles,” Anderson said of his 10-man roster. “We’re playing more zone defense than we have in the past. But basketball is about adjustments, and that’s what we are doing.”
Two players who are adjusting well for the Razorbacks are senior point guard Jabril Durham and junior transfer Dusty Hannahs.
Durham played in every game last season and started nine of them, but averaged just 10 minutes a game. His role has expanded greatly. Durham has started every game this season and is averaging a team-leading 31.6 minutes per game. Durham leads the Southeastern Conference in assists with 7.9 per game and has three of the league’s six double-digit assist games. He is one of only four players in the nation to have three double-digit assist performances this season. He has an excellent 3.70 assists to turnover ratio, and he’s also adding 7.1 points and making 1.9 steals per game, which is fifth in the SEC.
Hannahs, a Little Rock native, has been the beneficiary of more than a few of those assists. Though the transfer from Texas Tech, generally comes off the bench, he is leading the Razorbacks in scoring with 18.3 points per game, which is fifth in the SEC. He’s averaging 2.9 three-pointers per game, which ties for the lead in the SEC with Georgia’s Kenny Gains, and he’s shooting 50 percent from three-point range. Hannahs’ appears to have range in the neighborhood of Al Dillard and Rotnei Clarke. Hannahs also leads the SEC in free-throw shooting percentage at 97.2 percent, going to the line 4.5 times a game.
Anthlon Bell (17.4 ppg.) and Moses Kingsley (15.9 ppg.) also average in double figures with Manny Watkins (9.9 ppg.) and Jimmy Whitt (8.5 ppg.) on the cusp of being double-digit scorers.
“We have individuals playing better,” Anderson said. “Jabril Durham is taking command out on the floor. Dusty Hannahs comes off the bench, but I consider him a starter. We’re getting consistency and energy from Manny when he comes in the game. We are seeing the development of Willie Kouassi on defensively end. He’s getting more and more active and comfortable on the floor.”
Anderson welcomed the return of 6-9 forward Trey Thompson back to the floor after suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech, which kept him out of the better part of four games, in the Hogs’ 89-76 victory over Evansville on Tuesday. Anderson said Thompson’s playing time would increase in Saturday’s 7 p.m. contest against Tennessee Tech at Bud Walton Arena.
Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
“Trey has the best basketball IQ of all our forwards,” Anderson said. “He has a great pair of hands, is a good passer and screener. He’s programmed to help us this year. He’s a passionate guy. He’ll bring energy on the floor. His impact will be boxing out and deflecting passes on front or back end of the press and doing some blue-collar work.”
Defense is where Anderson wants his team to make strides before the SEC schedule opens in January.
“We’re scoring,” said Anderson of his squad that averages 86.1 ppg, which is second in the SEC to Auburn at 90.2 ppg. “We’ve got to stop somebody is what we have to do. We have to pull together from a defensive standpoint. We need to do some tweaking and get them to understand the nuances of pressure defense and even half-court defense.
“I thought Moses was very active around the rim [against Evansville,] but we’ve got to get the other kids to come and help him from the backside. If he goes for a block, the other players have to go to rim and get the ball, or we give up an easy stickback. We have to rotate better and understand the game better. We have to understand what we have to do when someone goes for a block or a steal to protect the basket.
“I think our defense is going to be the strength of our team. It’s not now, but we are going to keep pushing and pushing. Just as we have improved since November, this team is going to improve and look very different in January and February than it does today. They are progressing.”
The additional time to be played by Thompson and the return Beard at the end of the semester will allow minutes to be spread around and the Razorbacks to have more energy to close out basketball games.
“We’re expending so much energy early in the game that it will be a welcome relief to add more bodies,” Anderson said. “We want efficient minutes. We’re going to be able to spread some of the playing time out so we can get quality minutes at the end of the game. I like a lot of what we are doing. I can see it coming. We just have to do it 40 minutes.”