Any worry about the Arkansas Razorbacks focusing more on Christmas sugar plumbs than their final opponent prior to opening SEC play was tucked into bed early Thursday night as the Hogs rolled to a 90-56 victory over the Sam Houston State Bearkats at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.
The victory gave the Razorbacks their eighth in a row since falling, 85-71, at Minnesota on Nov. 22. The Hogs’ record moved to 11-1, which is the best start of the Mike Anderson era at Arkansas. It’s the longest current winning streak in the SEC.
Some might quibble with praising the Hogs for frosting another cupcake before the Christmas holiday. However, other Razorback teams of recent years have stumbled in similar circumstances. It is significant that this Razorback squad took care of business before concerning themselves with the Christmas break.
Also, the Bearkats aren’t a bad basketball team. They are the favorites to win the Southland Conference. While that might not register much in the minds of fans, it will be a solid brick in the overall NCAA Tournament resume the Razorbacks are compiling.
The victory also leaves a good taste in the Razorbacks and their fans’ mouths as they enter SEC play next Thursday when the Florida Gators visit Bud Walton Arena for a key early SEC matchup at Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks have gotten better and better since that loss to Minnesota, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The encouraging thing, though, is that it appears Arkansas hasn’t yet reached its ceiling on either end of the court. It’s a good thing for the Razorbacks to be 11-1 going into SEC play, knowing that the squad still has definite room for improvement.
The last thing a team with eyes on the NCAA Tournament wants to do is play its best basketball in December. Good basketball teams are able to shift into high gear for conference play, and that’s what the Razorbacks need to focus on as they head into the Christmas holiday.
“I want to compliment our team for probably our best performance of the year,” Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson said following the game in video from his postgame press conference, posted on Arkansas’ website. “From a defensive standpoint and offensively, we did all the little things.”
Those little things made the difference in the game being close, and the Razorbacks delivering a knockout punch in the second half.
The Hogs are a talented basketball team, but they aren’t a team of superstars, certainly not like Kentucky. As of yet, no player has proven to be as dominant as Bobby Portis or Michael Qualls were for the Razorbacks during the 2014-2015 season. However, this squad is deeper and has better guard play.
The Razorbacks have five solid guards that are skilled offensively and who have improved game by game on the defensive end of the floor in JUCO transfers Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, seniors Dusty Hannahs and Manuel Watkins, and junior Anton Beard.,
That depth gives Anderson plenty of options and ensures that the Razorbacks can maintain pressure on the offensive and defensive ends even when substituting. While Hannahs still leads the team in scoring at 14.9 ppg., he is coming off the bench of late. Three other Hogs average in double figures — Macon (13.3 ppg.), Moses Kingsley (11.3 ppg.), Barford (10.3 ppg.) — and two others average seven or more points – Beard (9.0 ppg.) and Dustin Thomas (7.1 ppg.).
Forwards Arlando Cook, a JUCO transfer, played well against Texas and freshman Adrio Bailey, a freshman, has given the Hogs solid minutes of late.
No doubt the Razorbacks still need to improve. Ball movement on the offense sometimes is an issue, and while good, the Razorbacks pressure defense still can tighten up as the Hogs move through the season. But this team is improving at a steady pace up to this point in the season.
Player of the Game
Moses Kingsley, the preseason pick to be the SEC Player of the Year, has had somewhat of a slow start to the season, but the senior was simmering Thursday night for the Hogs. He scored 17 points, collected 7 rebounds, blocked 3 shots, and had 2 steals for the Hogs in 23 minutes on the floor.
Play of the Game
Kingsley still hasn’t reached his potential as a Razorback, but he gave fans a thrill Thursday by running the floor like a pro.
With 5:30 left to play in the first half, Kingsley threw down a monster slam that brought the crowd of 12,153 to their feet and gave the Hogs a 33-23 lead. Watkins started the break and fed Macon. Macon slickly dished to Kingsley, who rattled the rim with a two-handed slam.
Give us more of this, Moses, please.
Stat of the Game
The Razorbacks smothered the Bearkats with witheringly tight defense most of the night. The Hogs did give up some open looks, but those looks were designed to speed up the Bearkats, Anderson said. Sam Houston State never found it’s equilibrium in the game as the Hogs held them to 30.7 percent shooting from the field and just 13 percent from behind the three-point arc.
The wear-and-tear of the Hogs’ defense also showed up in the Bearkats’ free-throw shooting percentage. They managed to make 67 percent of their free throws in the first half, but as the Bearkats got tired their free-throw percentage in the second half sank to 50 percent for a total of 53 percent for the game.
Sam Houston State did a good job of taking care of the basketball against the Razorbacks’ half-court pressure with only 11 turnovers to the Razorbacks’ 10, but the Hogs’ on-the-ball pressure still made it difficult on the Bearkats.
Chairman of the Board
It was a well-rounded rebounding effort by the Hogs with Kingsley and Thomas leading the way with seven rebounds apiece. Trey Thompson and Cooke each snared 6 rebounds, while freshman Brachen Hazen had 5 boards in just seven minutes of playing time. The Razorbacks outrebounded Sam Houston Sate, 49-41.
Quote of the Game
“We had a size advantage,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said, “and we took advantage of it against a very physical basketball team, particularly in the second half. We spread the floor, went to the basket, and then went to the free-throw line.”
The Razorbacks will not have the chance to ease into their SEC schedule with Florida visiting Bud Walton Arena for the conference opener at 8 p.m. on Dec. 29.
Mike White’s Gators were picked by the media as the team to most likely to challenge SEC powerhouse Kentucky this season for the league title.
The Gators have played well this year as evidenced by their 94-71 whipping of Arkansas-Little Rock Wednesday night in their final game before their conference opener with the Hogs.
A three-loss team at this juncture might not sound impressive, but the Gators losses have come to No. 5 Duke, 84-74; No. 11 Gonzaga, 77-72; and No. 21 Florida State, 83-78.