Hoop Hogs challenged, honored to play in PK80

Arkansas senior Anton Beard / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

If you need a pick-me-up after stuffing yourself with Thanksgiving turkey, the Arkansas Razorbacks’s first-round showdown with the Oklahoma Sooners in the PK80 Phil Knight Invitational might do the trick.

The 3-0 Hogs face the 2-0 Sooners at 4 p.m. Thursday in what should be a high-octane, hardwood affair. The Razorbacks are averaging 93 points per game, while the Sooners are scoring at an incredible 108 point-per-game clip. ESPN2 is televising the game.

“It’s going to be an up-tempo game to say the least,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “We like to play at an up-tempo pace, and they like to score a lot of points. They shoot the ball at a high percentage and their bigs are really good passers and move that ball up the court. It’s an exciting matchup. This is another test for our team, going into a tournament setting.”

The event features the Razorbacks, Sooners and 14 other Nike-sponsored basketball squads in what on-paper is the strongest of the Thanksgiving collegiate basketball events this season.

Duke, North Carolina, UConn, DePaul, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Butler, Florida, Oregon, Stanford, Texas, Portland, and Portland State compose the rest of the field, which features two brackets. Each team will play three games over four days.

Should the Razorbacks and the Tar Heels both win or both lose their opening round games, there would be a rematch of last spring’s second-round NCAA Tournament game. Arkansas pushed eventual national champion North Carolina to the limit before the Tar Heels rallied for a 72-65 victory in the final minutes.

“Our goal is to win that first one,” Anderson said. “It’s the most important. Oklahoma is the only team on our mind. We want to go up there and play better each night, continue making that improvement like I believe we did in our first three games. Can we still do that against better competition? We’re going up there to get after it.”

Anderson said the team’s play in the invitational is the next step in his team’s maturation.

“Our team is built for tournaments,” Anderson said. “Three games in four days, we’ve got playing time for all of our guys. It’s a neutral site and very much like a postseason setting. Some of our guys have been in that setting, but a lot have them have not. I want to see what the younger ones do, and how our more experienced players react.”

Anderson likened the event to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s a big-time tournament,” Anderson said. “Every team you play is going to be really, really good. The first is the most important. The only difference in the mindset of this and the NCAA Tournament is in the Big Dance, it’s survive and advance. In this one, we have three games.”

Anderson said the nature of the tournament will create odd lineups for his team at times.

“We’re going to have times where we have freshmen and sophomores out there with one senior,” Anderson said. “In our first three games, we saw that and the young guys didn’t miss a beat. Now the competition is stepped up. How will they react? Can they maintain or extend a lead? We’re going to pressure and that expends a lot of energy. We’re going to need everyone playing their part.”

The event is held in celebration of Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

“It’s an honor to be invited,” Anderson said. “Being a Nike school, we get to go up there and honor him and play in one of the best tournaments of this nature that I’ve ever seen.

“I know our guys are excited, and more than that we get to honor an innovator in our game. He’s transcended being a businessman. When you think of a name like Phil Knight and Nike and what they mean for our game, and the influence he and his company has had on all sports.”

Senior Dustin Thomas comes off his three-game suspension for the invitational. The Hogs are happy to have another player to utilize. The 6-8 forward started 27 of 36 games last year, but Anderson said he won’t step right back into the starting lineup.

“We’re excited about getting another body back,” Anderson said of Thomas. “He’s not just going to go right back out there like nothing happened. He’s going to have to work his way back in. But he is a fifth-year senior. He has experience, and his versatility is big for this basketball team. We hope he approaches his return with some urgency. He started the season with 31 opportunities. He missed three. Now, he’s down to 28. What is he going to do with those opportunities? He’s had a lot of energy, and he’s had good practices.”

Anderson said that Thomas has improved his shooting, but that his rebounding, defense, and ball handling is what Arkansas missed the most with him watching from the bench.

Arkansas’ freshmen took advantage of the minutes they received in Thomas’ absence, and Anderson said he saw improvement.

“Seeing Gabe [Osabuohien], and Daniel [Gafford] and Darius Hall play and improve,” Anderson said. “Adrio Bailey has been getting 6 or 8 rebounds after the first exhibition game. So his [Thomas’] absence has helped us by getting those guys some additional minutes.”

Anderson said he liked his team’s start, but that the next three games will tell him even more about his squad.

“The competition is being dialed up,” Anderson said. “I want to see how they respond to that challenge. Can we take it to the next level in a tournament setting?”