Gafford puts Hogs on shoulders for big win over Indiana

Daniel Gafford has broad shoulders, literally.

I mean look at him. The Arkansas Razorback sophomore looks like Michelangelo chiseled him out of marble specifically to play basketball.

He’s 6-foot-11, with a 7-foot wingspan. Strong and sinewy. All quick-twitch muscle with the grace of a gazelle and the power of a lion.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Montana State (Hardwood Showcase)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 21
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Plus

Remaining schedule

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

“King Kong ain’t got ‘bleep’ on” Daniel Gafford, to echo Denzel Washington’s character Det. Alonzo Harris in 2001 classic cop flick “Training Day.”

Physically, we knew Gafford had “it” within minutes of his debut last year.

Physically, the Razorbacks have never had a big man as agile and athletic with the ability to play above and protect the rim like Superman flying over Metropolis.

Yes, Daniel Gafford has broad shoulders, physically

What we didn’t know for sure until Sunday, though, was that Daniel Gafford has broad shoulders in a figurative sense.

The super sophomore from El Dorado made a huge statement Sunday in leading his young Arkansas Razorbacks to a thrilling 73-72 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers at Bud Walton Arena.

With a stunning second-half performance, Gafford put the Hogs (2-1) on his shoulders and willed them to victory, scoring 19 of his game-high 27 points and grabbing 7 of his game-high 12 rebounds. He also blocked three shots and made two steals to round out a formidable stat line.

If Gafford’s not the SEC’s Player of the Week, something is amiss in the league office.

Sure, he has his own brand of Kryptonite, making just 3 of 8 free throws. And, yes, three turnovers by any one player is too many, but let’s not quibble with what we saw Sunday.

It was a towering performance by a player who still has so much up-side that it is hard to get a grip on the type of player Gafford’s going to be as a finished product.

Gafford played too well last year to call Sunday’s performance a coming-out party, but he definitely proved to all who watched the he has raised his game.

A year ago, Gafford made dominating plays on a regular basis, but Sunday he dominated the second half in a way no other Razorback has done since Corliss Williamson was big and nasty for Nolan Richardson’s Hogs in the mid 1990s.

Don’t get me wrong. One game doesn’t make a career. Gafford hasn’t proven to be as polished, proficient, and consistent as Williamson, but Gafford certainly made a statement Sunday to Arkansas’ upcoming opponents, his teammates, and his adoring Razorback fans.

While Gafford’s game is nothing like former Razorback All-American and NBA great Sidney Moncrief’s, it was so heartening to watch a totally gassed Gafford summon up the strength to make a steal near half court when his body had to be aching and burning with fatigue.

That’s the kind of effort, heart, and desire that made Moncrief a legend in the state, and after suffering through this football season, it’s good for Hog fans to be reminded what a winning effort looks like.

Gafford’s play is the kind of leadership that inspires and lifts teammates. It’s the kind of play that makes everyone step in line and work that much harder for the common goal.

However, after making a statement like that, Gafford is going to have to live with all the attention he is going to get.

I’m not talking about the attention from fans or NBA scouts. Oh, he’s going to get that. But, now, Gafford is going to get even more attention from opponents.

Gafford was already at the top of every opponent’s scouting report not only because of his ability but also because he’s the only Hog who made a significant contribution to last year’s squad. After Sunday, teams are going to give him the type of defensive respect that no player truly wants.

Second-year Indiana basketball coach Archie Miller is probably still kicking himself for not double-teaming Gafford more. It might have been the difference in the game. Future opponents probably aren’t going to make the same sin of omission.

Gafford is not only going to have to live with double teams but he also needs thrive with them if this Razorback team is going to maximize its potential.

While there are many things that Gafford does well naturally on the basketball floor, and there are other skills he’s developed through hard work, he not has proven to be a natural or particularly skilled at passing out of a double team as of yet.

Most sophomores aren’t great at it, but with this essentially being Gafford’s senior year, he’s going to need to improve his patience and confidence when doubled as the season goes along.

The best Razorback big men all were or became great at it. Oliver Miller and Corliss Williamson were either naturals or brought the skills with them from the high-school level. Players like Joe Kleine and Derek Hood got better at it as they matriculated through Eddie Sutton and Richardson’s systems respectively.

Speaking of Kleine, he faced a similar situation as a senior that Gafford is facing now, being a leader on very young basketball team from an inside position.

Kleine had a great senior year, but no doubt it was a frustrating one as he was always the center of the opponent’s defensive attention. It was particularly grueling to watch one of John Thompson’s best Georgetown squads smother Kleine inside and as a result administering a 59-36 road loss to the Hogs in early February of 1985.

Yes, that was the same Hoyas squad that Villanova eventually defeated in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game. It is still considered one of the biggest championship-game upsets in collegiate athletics not just college hoops.

A interesting aside, after Sutton stepped down as Arkansas’ head coach to “crawl” to Kentucky in April of 1985, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino flirted with Frank Broyles and the Arkansas job before coaxing a nice raise and extension from the Fathers at Villanova. Broyles quickly went to Plan B and hired Richardson away from Tulsa.

But I digress.

Basketball is played differently from when Kleine dominated the offensive paint for the Hogs and even from when Williamson plied his trade in the paint. Gafford’s not limited to posting up as he proved against Indiana, showing a mid-range jumper as well as slashing to the rim. He also does a nice job on the offensive glass, so he’s not totally dependent on his teammates to get shot opportunities.

While he does not have the supporting cast that Williamson played with, there is a promising young group of talent coalescing around him in guards Mason Jones (11 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists), Isaiah Joe (13 points, 3 assists), and Jalen Harris (5 points, 4 assists). Forwards Reggie Chaney and Gage Osabuohien also had some good minutes despite Adrio Bailey struggling some.
If Gafford can open up easier opportunities for his supporting cast by finding the open man when double teamed, this Hog squad could end up being as effective in the half court as they are in transition.

While the Hoosiers managed to shoot better than Arkansas coach Mike Anderson would have liked at 46.6 percent from the field, his youthful Hogs forced Indiana into 18 turnovers, and the Razorbacks needed everyone of them to pull off the victory.

As good as the victory looks and feels today, it’s likely to look even better on the Hogs’ resume in March when NCAA Tournament invitations are extended.

As promising as Arkansas’ defense looked Sunday, it has me eagerly anticipating late February and March when Anderson’s squads usually pull everything together and play their best basketball.

In the short term, it was exciting to watch Gafford and the rest of the Razorbacks deliver a big victory when the Arkansas fan base needed one in the worst way.