Freshmen step forward in Ole Miss victory

Frankly, it’s too early to tell if the Arkansas Razorbacks were just fortunate they were playing Ole Miss Tuesday night, or if they are actually gaining momentum to peak for postseason play.

After watching Arkansas’ 75-64 victory over Ole Miss at Oxford, Miss., I think a convincing argument could be made either way if facts on either side of the debate were conveniently left unmentioned.

Weighing both sides of such a case leaves me more perplexed than ever about the Razorbacks and how to view them.

On one hand, the Hogs won a road game, just their second of the season. However, it should not go unmentioned that Arkansas is 3-1 in neutral-site games, and that the postseason will be played out on neutral or somewhat neutral territory.

Any road win for the Hogs should be cherished this season, even one against a poor team that had their season pulled out from beneath them by their administration on Monday when the University of Mississippi slapped a “Dead Man Walking” sign on Coach Andy Kennedy’s back.

Ole Miss and Kennedy announced Monday that he won’t be retained as the Rebels coach. It was made out to be some sort of mutual agreement, but leaving the Rebel program wasn’t Kennedy’s idea.

I wouldn’t argue that Ole Miss did not need a change. Despite being Ole Miss’ all-time winningest coach, Kennedy only guided the Rebels to two NCAA Tournament appearances in a dozen seasons. That speaks for itself.

However, that farce of a press conference Monday was about as disingenuous as it could have been. It was like putting a Christmas bow on a guillotine. Kennedy likely had to grin and bear the situation as a stipulation of his buyout agreement.

He and his Rebels are supposed to go through the motions for the next five regular-season games and probably a one-game appearance in the SEC Tournament at St. Louis, March 7-11.

Conventional wisdom was that the Rebels would either rally around their coach and play lights out or play flatter than an RC Cola left out overnight on the back porch.

The Rebels played flat, and for a lot of the game, the Hogs’ did, too.

I’d like to credit the Rebels’ 29 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent shooting from the three-point line to Arkansas’ torrid defensive performance, but that just wasn’t the case.

Arkansas’ defense wasn’t bad, but the Rebels missed open shot after open shot from outside and point-blank range. They even pulled down 15 offensive boards, but failed to convert enough of them to make the last eight minutes of the game interesting.

The Razorbacks put the game away with an 18-1 run after the eight-minute mark. Arkansas took advantage of the Rebels during that span pushing the lead out to nearly 20 points before settling for the solid 11-point victory.

However, was it the Hogs playing well or the Rebels just running out of fizz?

It was probably somewhere between. But a win is a win.

Now, that sums up my ambivalence about the game, which had to be a stinker to anyone without a rooting interest, but there was a bright flare of hope for Hogs fans in the victory, too.

Razorback scoring stars Jaylen Barford (13 points) and Daryl Macon (4 points) combined for just 17 points in the victory, which is 18.4 points less than their combined season average of 35.4 points and 20.6 points less than their SEC combined average of 37.6 points, and yet the Razorbacks won the basketball game. Going into the game, I didn’t think that was a possibility because of the heavy scoring load Barford and Macon have carried all season.

Had you told me the two only combined for 17 points against the Rebels, I would have guessed Ole Miss would have won by double digits.

Freshmen forward Daniel Gafford scored 19 points — his most since scoring 25 against Fresno State on Nov. 17 — to lead Arkansas in scoring with just 20 minutes of playing time.

Gafford’s fellow freshman forward Darius Hall played his best game as a Razorback, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 boards for his first double-double of his college career. Hall also has 3 assists and just one turnover in 22 minutes on the floor.

That was huge for the Razorbacks with Ole Miss intent on putting the clamps on Macon, who had scored 20 or more points in Arkansas’ last seven games, which was the most since All-American Corliss Williamson did it eight times in 1994-95.

The Rebels double-teamed Macon whenever possible to force the ball out of his hand. Macon was still productive with 6 assists, 4 rebounds and a steal to go along with his 4 points. Senior guard Anton Beard added 13 points with one of his better shooting performances in recent games, going 5 of 10 from the field and 3 of 4 from three-point range.

Again it was huge that Gafford, Hall, Beard, and others responded positively to fill the gaps when Barford and Macon weren’t scoring as prolifically as they usually do. That had not been the case when the senior guards had off nights in previous games.

It’s good for Macon and Barford to know that their teammates can deliver, and it’s got to be a confidence builder for Gafford and Hall to know they played the key offensive roles in the Hogs’ road victory.

Now, before we get too excited, we have to remember that the Razorbacks played a smallish Ole Miss squad, but it should not be ignored that we witnessed growth by the team against the Rebels that should help the Razorbacks in the near future.

Speaking of the near future, the Hogs face a challenging if not daunting final, five-game stretch run to end the regular season. However those final five games are also ripe with opportunity if only Arkansas can harvest it.

Three of the final five games are at Walton Arena with the first two being at home against Texas A&M at 3 p.m. Saturday and against Kentucky at 8 p.m. the following Tuesday.

On Feb. 24 Arkansas plays at Alabama, but then returns home on Feb. 27 to host Auburn. Then on March 3, the Razorbacks close out the regular season at Missouri.

Conventional wisdom is that the Razorbacks need to win two to three of the five to have a good shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas would still need to perform well in the SEC Tournament, but the Razorbacks wouldn’t have to win it to get their March Madness dance card punched by the NCAA Selection Committee.

However, if the Razorbacks really get on a roll an go 4-1 or 5-0 over this final stretch, the Hogs could play their way into one of the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament.

With the double bye that comes with a top-four seed along with the fact that the conference tournament seems to be as wide open as it has been in a decade, the Hogs might have a chance at winning the SEC Tournament title. Arkansas has accomplished that only once back in 2000.

Now, mentioning that really is putting the cart before the horse. Arkansas beat a bad Ole Miss team Tuesday night.

However with the Razorbacks on a three-game winning streak and them having their next two games at home, as a fan, it’s hard not to dream a little when talented freshmen like Hall and Gafford are showing signs of maturity.