Anderson seeks a core to fit around Hog centerpiece Gafford

Just like the fall weather, it seems like basketball has snuck up on us.

Mike Anderson’s eighth Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team plays its second and final exhibition game tonight at 7 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena against Southwest Baptist. There is no TV or radio broadcast of the game.

A week from tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPN, the season gets real with the tipoff of the regular season against arch-nemesis Texas in the Armed Forces Classic, held at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

The Hogs probably aren’t ready for the Longhorns tonight, but a lot of work can be done in a week, said Anderson, who is still feeling out his very young basketball team that only returns three contributors from last year’s squad.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Southwest Baptist
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: No TV or radio (exhibition)

Remaining schedule

Nov. 9 – Texas
Nov. 12 – UC Davis
Nov. 18 – Indiana
Nov. 21 – Montana State
Nov. 23 – UT Arlington
Dec. 1 – FIU
Dec. 5 – at Colorado State
Dec. 8 – Western Kentucky
Dec. 15 – UTSA
Dec. 19 – Georgia Tech
Dec. 22 – Texas State
Dec. 28 – Austin Peay
Jan. 5 – at Texas A&M
Jan. 9 – Florida
Jan. 12 – LSU
Jan. 15 – at Tennessee
Jan. 19 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 23 – Missouri
Jan. 26 – at Texas Tech
Jan. 29 – Georgia
Feb. 2 – at LSU
Feb. 5 – Vanderbilt
Feb. 9 – at South Carolina
Feb. 12 – at Missouri
Feb. 16 – MIssissippi State
Feb. 20 – at Auburn
Feb. 23 – Texas A&M
Feb. 26 – at Kentucky
March 2 – Ole Miss
March 6 – at Vanderbilt
March 9 – Alabama
March 13-17 – SEC Tournament

No doubt Anderson probably has some kind of scouting report on the Bearcats, but he is more concerned about what he wants his team to do than he is with breaking down SBU’s squad.

Daniel Gafford, the Razorbacks’ 6-11 sophomore forward who is projected to be a lottery pick in next summer’s NBA Draft, is the centerpiece of everything the Razorbacks plan to do this year. The El Dorado native oozes natural athletic ability, but he is still a young player, not fully in control of his own game just yet.

Gafford got into first-half foul trouble in the first half of the Razorbacks’ 96-47 defeat of Tusculum in their first exhibition game by committing what Anderson called lazy fouls.

“He was leaning and reaching instead of staying vertical,” Anderson said Thursday in his press conference. “He got another foul with his hands.”

Anderson expects Gafford to show more maturity tonight against SBU, and added that Gafford needs to understand his value to his team. Gafford not only needs to be on the floor for the Hogs, but he also needs to be leader for a talented but inexperienced group of players.

Gafford routinely made dominating plays on both ends of the floor as a freshman, but he rarely dominated entire games. He sometimes faded from games because of foul trouble or the guard-oriented offense that revolved around departed seniors Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon or some other reason.

Anderson wants Gafford to be a dominating presence every second he is on the floor this season. He even wants the opponent to be wary and take note when Gafford is on the bench.

The Razorbacks have not had NBA lottery talent on the squad since 2005 when Ronnie Brewer was taken with the final lottery pick, and have not had a top 10 NBA Draft selection since Joe Johnson went 10th in 2001 when some of the current Razorbacks were still in diapers.

While the Razorbacks have had some fine big men in the past — Joe Kleine, Oliver Miller, and Corliss Williamson — none have had the combined height and athletic ability of Gafford. None of them played above the rim like Gafford.

That said, Gafford has not yet proven to be as good or consistent as any of those three were at the same point in their careers. At the end of last season, Gafford’s play on the floor had not yet caught up with his mighty potential.

Gafford won’t reach his full potential at Arkansas. That won’t come until he is several years into his NBA career, but Arkansas needs for him to make strides this season if a very young Razorback team is to meet its full potential.

The Hogs need leadership from their super sophomore, and no player – no matter how talented – can lead effectively strapped to the bench with fouls.

Anderson did note after the first exhibition game that Gafford played better and smarter with four fouls than he did early in the game. That shows Gafford is capable of playing within himself. He just needs to be locked in early in the game.

It’s almost frightening how good the young man could be if he plays most of his minutes with the intensity and discipline Gafford showed in spurts last season. If he can develop his free-throw shooting enough to average around 70 percent, he’ll probably average close to 20 points a game, even if he is not the focal point of the offense.

Gafford is already a great talent. The key for the Hogs is how great a player he becomes. However, for Gafford – and more importantly, the Razorbacks – to reach their potential, Anderson said has to find out who his core players are going to be.

Anderson said he already has a good idea who they will be from practice, but he wasn’t ready to name the players just yet. Competition for playing time is an ongoing battle in Anderson’s program, and he wants playing time won on the floor not in a press conference. Anderson also wants to see how well those players and other Razorbacks play when the lights are on.

The Razorbacks had preseason jitters in the first half against Tusculum, but bounced back and played much better in the second half. Anderson wants to see the Razorbacks pick up where they left off from that second half.

Anderson said he is still searching for the right combinations on the floor, and likely will continue to throughout the season, but he added that the players he sees as his core would likely get extensive minutes against SBU.

Anderson was disappointed that Tusculum played harder than the Hogs in the first half of last week’s game. He is expecting a different story against SBU.

Calling tonight’s game Audition 2, Anderson indicated that how the various Razorbacks play in the exhibition will have a bearing on playing time is distributed in the Hogs’ opener against the Longhorns.

Like his mentor Nolan Richardson, Anderson is more concerned with the players that finish a game than start it, but tonight’s starting lineup and the combinations Anderson deploys together throughout the game should give us some solid clues to which players are apart of his eight-man core.