Arkansas senior forward Dustin Thomas / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
It’s going to be cold outside Saturday, but there will be plenty of heat inside a sold-out Walton Arena as the Arkansas Razorbacks open their Southeastern Conference schedule against the No. 19 Tennessee Vols.
Tipoff is set for high noon, and the game that will be televised by the SEC Network should be an outstanding showcase for two programs that hope to make some noise on the college basketball landscape this season.
Both squads have exceeded expectations based on preseason projections. Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks (10-2) were picked to be in the middle of the SEC pack by the league media in October, while Rick Barnes’ Vols (9-2) were tabbed to finish dead last.
Arkansas vs. #19 Tennessee
Date: Saturday, Dec. 30
Time: 12 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network
While either of those projections could happen, the Vols and Hogs, which have a 19-19 series record against each other, bring two of the SEC’s better resumes into conference play. Tennessee’s NCAA Ratings Percentage Index is eighth, while Arkansas’ is 14th. Only Texas A&M’s is better at sixth.
The Vols have been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for a month, while the Hogs have resided in the “receiving votes” addendum the last two weeks due mainly to an inexplicable 91-65 loss at Houston on Dec. 2.
Poll voters are wondering when the real Razorbacks will stand up. A victory Saturday should move them into the rankings.
The Vols only losses have come to No. 1 Villanova and No. 13 North Carolina. The Razorbacks also lost to the Tar Heels in the Phil Knight 80 Tournament in November.
A win at Walton Arena Saturday would solidify the Vols as an early dark horse candidate for the league title and further their credentials for an NCAA invite in March.
Both squads have had a fine start to the season, but conference play begins a whole new season, according to Anderson.
“Now we jump into the SEC, the conference race,” Anderson said following the Razorbacks’ 95-68 victory over California Bakersfield on Wednesday. “There’s a championship to be won. We’ve got to make sure we do our due diligence and take care of home. We have a Tennessee Volunteers team that is playing really well right now.”
Like Arkansas, the Vols have a deep bench with eight players averaging between 15.4 and 4.5 ppg. Grant Williams leads the Vols with 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Admiral Schofield averages 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds. Jordan Bowden averages 12.0 points and 3.5 rebounds a game.
While the Hogs had the Cal Bakersfield game to work the Christmas rust out of their game, the Vols have not played since their impressive 79-60 victory at Wake Forest on Dec. 23.
Anderson is glad his team had a tune-up before taking on Tennessee. The game was close at halftime, but the Razorbacks played much better in the second half to put the game away.
“The rhythm of the game and the intensity of our play on defense improved in the second half,” Anderson said. [Jaylen] Barford stepped it up in the second half and as a team, we stepped it up.”
Barford has led the Razorbacks in scoring most of the season. He’s averaging 18.6 points per game, followed by Daryl Macon with 15.3, Anton Beard with 12.1, Daniel Gafford with 11.7, and C.J. Jones with 10.5.
“I thought we played well in spurts,” Anderson said. “We had the same shots in the first half as we had in the second. We just didn’t knock down the shots in the first half.”
For the fifth game in a row, the Razorbacks had five or fewer turnovers against Cal Bakersfield. The Hogs have not taken care of the basketball so well for an extended stretch of games in two decades. Anderson believes the secret to that success has been good ball movement, but he questions whether it will continue.
“I hope it’s a sign of a mature team, maybe a sign of a good-passing team,” Anderson said. “We’ll find out more as we play better teams in our conference and teams that have had time to prepare for us and what we do.
“Can we move the ball and continue to share the ball at a high level in conference play? It remains to be seen.”
The Razorbacks also forced the Roadrunners into 17 turnovers in the game. On average, the Hogs are turning teams over 16.5 times so far this season.
However, the Razorbacks did give up some free points themselves and showed an emotional vulnerability with two needless technical fouls on Barford and Beard in the second half.
“We gave away some points, maybe 6 points, with the technical fouls,” Anderson said. “It will get addressed. Guys get to jawing. But when the intensity gets high like it does in conference games, and the game is close, things will be said and done, and it will get heated. We can’t let it get away from us like that. We can’t let that individual stuff hurt the team. It’s selfish.”
Anderson liked the aggressive play of forward Dustin Thomas, calling it his best performance of the season. His standout moment was when he grabbed a defensive board and went coast to coast for a finger-roll layup.
“Thomas was engaged and really into it,” Anderson said. “He’s one who played well in the first half.”
Anderson liked the silky smooth play of Macon, who scored 16 and handled the ball to near perfection, and the dirty work done by freshman Daniel Gafford.
“Daryl had 8 assists and no turnovers, and he scored for us,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a big scoring night for Daniel, but he went to the boards and did things to help us. How you play when you are not scoring is a big deal, and Daniel helped us.”
Anderson gave Beard credit for his hard-nosed play and 15 points, but he also scolded him a bit for the technical foul.
“Beard is always in the middle of things,” Anderson said. “Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but he’s made something happen by taking a charge, getting a steal, and getting a rebound.”
Anderson did not mention sophomore C.J. Jones, who had been scorching the nets from behind the three-point line before Christmas. Jones went for a cool 1 of 5 from three-point land and 1 for 6 for the game with 4 points, 2 rebounds, a steal, and a turnover.
The Razorbacks need for Jones to return to form to be their at their best in SEC play.
The Tennessee game becomes even more important for the Razorbacks when looking at their upcoming schedule. After opening the conference slate at home, the Hogs hit the road next week for a Tuesday night date at Mississippi State and a Jan. 6 game at Auburn before returning home Jan. 10 to face LSU.