It’s been a long dry spell for Razorbacks fans to find something to be excited about, but while the football Hogs were floundering once again in Baton Rouge, La., Arkansas’ basketball squad started the season off right.
Mike Anderson’s Hogs (2-0) opened the season with a pair of explosive victories over Samford and Bucknell last weekend. The Razorbacks ran the Bulldogs out of Bud Walton Arena, 95-56, last Friday and perhaps looked even better Sunday, whipping the Bison, 101-73.
While neither opponent have marquee name power, Samford is supposed to contend for the Southern Conference championship, and Bucknell figures to return to the NCAA Tournament if the Bison can overcome a brutal early road schedule.
It’s hard to get a true bearing on a team this early in the season, but, wow, Arkansas’ senior-laden, guard-oriented squad looked good last weekend.
The Hogs appeared to have picked up right where they left off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when they had eventual national champion North Carolina on the ropes before the Tar Heels’ experience and talent combined with kind whistles from the officials took the game over.
It might be fools’ gold, but I loved what I saw from Anderson’s squad. They can score. The Hogs are averaging 98 points per game at the moment, but everything is starting on the defensive end for these Hogs, and that’s just the type of team Anderson wants his Razorbacks to be.
Arkansas’ two leading men Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon took center stage in both games. Barford is like a bull leading the way with his broad shoulder on the way to the rim. He can take the bumps and finish like no Razorback guard I can remember since Sidney Moncrief. Now, I’m not comparing his overall game to Sidney, just the way contact doesn’t bother him much when he’s going to the basket.
Barford muscled his way to a 27-point, 5-rebound, 2-assist performance against Bucknell on Sunday. It was an efficient 27, too, on 10-of-15 shooting. Barford only hit 5 of 9 free throws — he’s usually better — or he would have topped 30 points in 28 minutes. Barford also scored 16 in the opener in a more balanced scoring affair, but also had 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal.
Macon is more like a sword, using his sneaky quickness and deft touch to slash up opponents. He starred Friday against Samford, splashing in 4 of 7 three-pointers, dishing out eight assists, making 2 steals and picking up three rebounds along the way. Macon was just as good against Bucknell, scoring 21 with four assists, a steal, and 2 rebounds.
Their partner in crime in the Hogs’ three-guard lineup is fellow senior Anton Beard. Beard has always been a quick and scrappy defender who could get to the basket and score from the outside, but he looks even better this season as a leaner, meaner version of himself at 185 rather that 200. He’s averaging 12.5 points, 2 rebounds, and an assist through two games.
Sophomore C.J. Jones has also played well, averaging 8.5 points, 4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game coming off the bench. That’s strong guard play any way you add it up.
However, those four are carrying the whole load at guard with freshman Khalil Garland out indefinitely with a medical condition.
The Hogs do have forwards who can help with ball handling, including 6-9 starting senior Trey Thompson, who is one of the best passers on the team, but while guard play is without a doubt the Hogs’ strength, those four are going to have to play Anderson’s aggressive brand of defense without fouling too much. So far, it hasn’t been an issue, but better, more talented opponents are on the horizon.
It was also exciting to see the play of freshmen Daniel Gafford (6-11), Darius Hall (6-6), and Gabe Osabuohien (6-8) as forwards who can play at and above the rim.
It’s early, but that trio looks to have the athletic ability that Anderson’s program has only had in smaller doses up to this point. The way they run, jump, and move is only going to make the Razorbacks more and more dangerous as they get a better grasp on the tenants of Anderson’s pressure defense.
Sophomore Adrio Bailey, who joins Barford, Macon, Beard, and Thompson in the starting lineup, fits in well with the younger forwards athletically. He understands the system better and is filling his role averaging 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1.5 steals per game. That’s a really productive stat line for 24 minutes of playing time.
Gafford looks every bit of the special talent he was advertised to be. He’s got things to learn, but his natural ability was evident. The good thing for him is that steps onto the court with veterans like Thompson, Barford, Macon, and Beard. He can take some time to grow into his role which stand to be a huge one when all is said and done.
Gafford’s averaging 12.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and a block a game out of the gates. The Hogs will probably need better rebounding numbers from him, but it appears he’ll be able to supply them once he gets a bit more acclimated to the college game.
Thompson is doing yeoman’s work on the boards with 9.5 per game along with 5 points and 2.5 assists. Thompson’s stat line doesn’t tell the total of his worth. He is a glue guy that creates opportunity by sacrificing his body and doing a lot of the dirty work on the high and low post that often goes unnoticed. Again, he’s got great vision and does a nice job setting the table for his teammates.
As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about this team. It is early, and the grind really hasn’t set in for the Hogs, but it was fun to watch a Razorback team with talent, experience, and the ability to execute what they are coached to do, which is the exact opposite of what we’ve experienced on the football field this season.
Two Games and Counting
I guess I would be remiss not to mention the football Hogs.
Saturday’s 33-10 loss to LSU was more of the same. The Razorbacks were able to put up a fight through the first half, but as it became evident that Austin Allen’s passing accuracy was out of whack because of his shoulder sprain or separation, much of the hope left the building.
A quarterback can play with that injury if he is tough, but it takes time and healing for the accuracy to return. Old-time Hog fans, no doubt, remember the struggles Greg Thomas (1987), Clint Stoerner (1999) and Robbie Hampton (2000) had while playing with similar injuries.
Arkansas is not a good defensive team, but their offensive limitations only exacerbates the situation. The Hogs are a team whose weaknesses work together to make the total product worse rather than one that’s lifted by its strengths.
The ship that fifth-year coach Bret Bielema and his staff built is going under, and it’s not pretty to watch.
When freshman quarterback Cole Kelley came in to relieve Allen, his turf toe injury made him a sitting duck. He was not the most agile quarterback anyway, but his size and strength made him a load in some running situations. But when the line got absolutely no push on a fourth-and-2, and his injury denied him the ability to push forward, he was a dead duck in the Hogs’ Steamboat package.
It’s ironic that later Saturday night or more accurately Sunday morning, the young man was arrested under suspicion of driving while intoxicated near Steamboat and Wedington drives.
As I’m writing this, Arkansas hasn’t announced Bielema’s decision on whether Kelley will play or not in this week’s 11 a.m. game with Mississippi State.
Bielema has a regular press conference at noon on Mondays. Word will probably come then. However, Bielema’s got to suspend him for a time to be consistent with past decisions concerning his player’s run-ins with the law.
A suspension of Kelley would leave a still injured Allen and Ty Storey as options to quarterback for the Hogs (4-6, 1-5 SEC) against the Bulldogs (7-3, 3-3 SEC).
As bad as this season has been, there is still an opportunity for a bowl game if the Hogs could upset Mississippi State on Saturday and Missouri (5-5, 2-4 SEC) at 1:30 p.m. on Black Friday in their final two games. Both are at Razorback Stadium and both will be televised by CBS.
I’d love to see that happen even if the Hogs’ bowl destination option was just Birmingham, Ala. However, if Arkansas is going to make a change at head coach, the move needs to come as swiftly as possible.
The upcoming recruiting class always takes a back seat to finding the right coach when a change needs to be made, but with this being the first year ever for an early signing period on Dec. 20, the quicker a transition can be made the better.
If a change is coming — and it kind of has to be — wheels are already turning behind the scene.
How much can actually be accomplished is unknown, though, because of all the jobs that will likely be open at the end of this season.
Florida and Tennessee are open as is Ole Miss’. The strong speculation is that Kevin Sumlin will be out at Texas A&M, too.
Three of the four jobs are more attractive than Arkansas’ because of money and recruiting territory. Even though there are plenty of good coaches out there that might like a change and an opportunity with the Razorbacks, being fourth in the conference hiring pecking order isn’t where you want to be when the time is short.
Also remember the fiasco when Arkansas fired basketball coach Stan Heath. Arkansas thought it had a deal with Billy Gillispie all but done, but when the Kentucky job came open, Arkansas was left scrambling and settled for John Pelphrey, who drove the program further in a hole.
If the Razorbacks could rise up over the next two weeks and give Long a couple of reasons to retain Bielema, it might be the way to go.
However, it’s been nearly a year since Bielema has given Arkansas fans and Long much of a reason to keep him around. After the Razorbacks beat Mississippi State 58-42 at Starkville, Miss., last Nov. 19, Arkansas’ program has been in steady decline.
It’s hard to stop downhill momentum once it get rolling like that.