Hoop Hogs remain undefeated going into first road test at Minnesota

Arkansas junior guard Jaylen Barford / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

It’s the time of the season when Arkansas’ basketball efforts get swallowed up by football. It’s just the lay of the land.

When the Razorbacks’ program was at its apex under Nolan Richardson, the regular season usually started around Thanksgiving, but basketball season creeps earlier and earlier.

Mike Anderson’s Hogs are already 3-0 and will play their sixth game on Dec. 1 two days before Florida and Alabama play for the SEC football championship.

This year the SEC will actually plays conference games in late December, while school is out with students still on Christmas break. Those games are being played early for television programming, but they are just going to get eaten alive in the ratings while sports fans feast on the annual bowl bonanza that’s served up after ol’ Saint Nick makes his annual Christmas rounds.

But I digress.

In case you missed it, the Razorbacks mounted a somewhat epic comeback last Friday to defeat a solid Texas-Arlington squad, 71-67, at Walton Arena.

The game was not a classic by any means, but considering the Razorbacks trailed by as much as 17 in the first half and by 11 at halftime, it was a sweet victory for Anderson and the Razorbacks.

The Razorbacks shot 31 percent from the field in the first half, which led to the deficit. They bounced back to shoot 50 percent in the second half, which averaged out to an unsavory 39 percent from the field for the game. Such an uneven shooting performance can get teams beat most nights, but the Hogs had the fortitude to pull it out by cranking up their defense.

UT-Arlington almost reversed the Hogs’ numbers shooting 48 percent in the first half and an icy 28 percent for the second half.

This Razorback team seems to have the makings of a strong defensive club, if it can consistently perform at the level it did for the final half of last Friday’s game. The talent is there. The will and the drive to do it night in and night out must still be developed though.

While I don’t know if Moses Kingsley truly has the aggressive offensive nature to be a SEC MVP, he is a defensive presence. He blocked four shots and altered a slew of others. Transfer Dustin Thomas complements Kingsley as a blue-collar tough guy, who also has some skills.

While the defensive chemistry is still developing, Arkansas’ backcourt is longer, quicker, stronger, tougher and deeper than in previous seasons under Anderson. That bodes well for this team that should be able to generate offense from its defense.

Perhaps the biggest development from the victory though was the coming-out party for junior guard Jaylen Barford. Barford was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player last season, but he had not looked exactly comfortable in the Razorbacks’ first two games. You could see the potential, but he had not yet shown what made him the most desired JUCO player in the nation last year.

That changed Friday in the second half as Barford turned it on as the Razorbacks made their comeback move.

Barford scored 13 of his game-high 17 points in the second half. He grabbed 6 rebounds, made 3 steals and had two assists for a solid all-around game. He did make 6 of the Hogs 14 turnovers, which will have to change, but he answered the call when the Razorbacks needed a spark. He showed leadership, which is something the Razorbacks lacked last season.

Junior guard Anton Beard also played well with 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists with no turnovers. Beard looks strong and quick after experiencing a sophomore slump last year.

Strength is something that is apparent with this group of Razorback guards. Barford and Beard are thick, cut in the mold of a Corey Beck. Senior Manny Watkins is another strongly built guard who plays fine defense and doesn’t mind banging with bigger players. Junior college transfer Daryl Macon is longer and leaner, reminding me a bit of Clint McDaniel’s build, to carry on the comparison.

Beck and McDaniel were the starting guards on the Hogs’ 1994 national championship team. Now, I’m not suggesting a national title is in the Razorbacks’ near future, but it does appear that Anderson has assembled a group of guards who can spearhead the hardnosed type of defense it takes to be successful in his system.

While everyone loves offense, good teams win with their defense night in and night out. It’s good to see several Razorbacks guards who aren’t going to be pushed around this season, and might just be able to push other teams around.

The 3-0 Hogs play at Minnesota at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The game is not televised but will be live streamed on ESPN3 at watchESPN.com. The game will be worth seeking out. The Golden Gophers are 4-0 after defeating St. John’s, 92-86, last Friday. Coach Richard Pitino’s squad also defeated Mount Saint Mary’s, 80-56, and UT-Arlington, 84-67.

It’s a game that will let the Hogs know exactly where they stand at this early juncture of the season.