Pieces fitting together for Anderson, Razorbacks

Arkansas freshman Isaiah Joe / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Everything isn’t supposed to be easy.

For me that’s the lesson for the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team and the fans coming out of last Saturday’s 79-67 victory over Texas-San Antonio and going into Wednesday night’s 8 p.m. game against Georgia Tech (5-4).

Coming off a week of final exams and a 78-77 home loss to Western Kentucky on Dec. 8, the Razorbacks had to rally from a four-point deficit before finally putting away the Roadrunners by a dozen.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Georgia Tech
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

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

The reports coming out of the game were overly dramatic.

“Razorbacks’ survive,” “Hogs hang on,” and so on?

In my book a 12-point win is a good one, no matter how difficult or hard-earned it happed to be. It is a win, and after suffering through a miserable football season, fans and media alike should recognize the value of any game that ends with a “W.”

Now, that’s not to compare Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson’s basketball program to Chad Morris’ burgeoning football program. There’s a huge difference in a program in its eighth year and one in its first.

Even though Anderson’s Hogs are dominated by freshmen and newcomers, there is an expectation for his Razorbacks to find themselves in postseason play at the end of this season no matter how low the SEC media picked them.

My expectation at this juncture of the season is for the Razorbacks to make it into the NCAA Tournament, not the NIT. The only question is whether they squeeze in door or knock it down?

The latter is not likely, but really it’s a question of how quickly Anderson is able to get his squad to turn the corner.

The Hogs have the makings of a very good team, a team that might go two or even three games into the NCAA Tournament depending how much they progress over the next two and half months.

They are young, but their pups aren’t scared of the big dogs, and there is enough skill, ability, and depth to believe even this inexperienced bunch of Hogs could be a pretty salty crew by the end of the regular season.

However, there are going to be bumps in the road and lessons that have to be learned along the way. But it’s a good thing when squads can learn lessons and still win by a dozen.

The biggest worry is that the Hogs still having offensive and defensive lapses that allow opponents to have big runs. That type of game slippage makes some games more difficult than they should be. It allowed Western Kentucky to walk out of Walton Arena with a victory the Hogs shouldn’t have let them have.

Anderson knows this, and he also realizes it’s part of the process. He and his team that are still getting to know themselves, and that is what the pre-conference schedule is all about for a young squad.

The Razorbacks are finding and defining their roles at this juncture. The Hogs have played pretty good so far, but the puzzle pieces to what this team will ultimate be are still coming together.

Even though we can’t see the completed picture yet, what we are seeing looks promising to me.

In one corner is sophomore big man Daniel Gafford. He’s an uncommon talent for Arkansas, and he should only get better as his teammates fall into their roles. He can score, defend, and rebound, and I’m guessing he’ll turn up his caliber of play a notch or two before the end of the SEC slate like most good players and leaders do.

In another corner is Jalen Harris at point guard, who is a perfect fit for Gafford and Mike Anderson’s style of basketball. He can score, but he is looking to facilitate his teammates first. Harris is averaging 7.6 assists per game and just 1 turnover. He also adds 9.3 points each game, and is a good defender.

In the other corner is the shooting/slashing combination of freshman Isaiah Joe and sophomore Mason Jones, who are averaging 16.9 and 13.4 ppg. respectively.

Joe’s already made 38 three-pointers this season, and he appears to have some of the ice water in his veins that ran through Arkansas assistant coach Scotty Thurman. It’s probably too early and a bit dangerous to give him that kind of praise. He hasn’t sunk a game-winner yet, but it’s undeniable that he has a sweet, sweet stroke. What I really get a kick of is that Joe willingly takes charges and defends. Some shooters won’t do that.

What I like about Jones is that he is fearless. He’s hit 21 treys himself, but I like the way he attacks the basket. Some of his shots are awkward in the lane, but he is going to challenge big men and force them to make a play or foul. I like that aggressiveness, and as his instincts grow, his athletic ability will allow him to become better and better in Anderson’s defenses.

The rest of the Razorbacks comprise that fourth corner of the puzzle. The are providing defense, depth and support for the rest of the squad. Sophomore Gabe Osabuohien finds a way to contribute in most games as does Adrio Bailey. Both are athletic and play key roles in team defense. rebounding. Both can score, particularly Bailey in the open court.
Freshman guard Desi Sills has come on recently and is playing well in all aspects of the game. He’s a good fit off the bench at any of the guard spots. Likewise Keyshawn Embery-Simpson has a very similar role.

Reggie Chaney is another freshman that is coming into his own. The 6-8 Chaney mostly plays when Gafford in on the bench, but I can envision the two being very effective playing together for periods as the season progresses.

I think this team is rounding into shape as one that can contend in the upper middle of what should be a very competitive Southeastern Conference.

It will be difficult for the Razorbacks to crack the SEC’s top four which appears to be No. 3 Tennessee (8-1), No. 7 Auburn (9-1), No. 17 Mississippi State (9-1), and Kentucky (8-2), but the Hogs solidly fit into the league’s next grouping of teams based on what we’ve seen so far, and that’s where the dogfight is going to be.

The league is well regarded early in the season, but it’s too early to make an accurate guess how many SEC teams will make the NCAA field. It could be a few as four or five or as many as nine, but probably somewhere in the middle.

The big question now, though, is how much gain can the Hogs make from now until they open the SEC season on Jan. 5.

The Hogs have just three games in the next 19 days with a Christmas break in there somewhere. That is a lot of practice time.

In the past, Anderson’s teams have often take a bit of a post Christmas dip in play. It would be good if that could be avoided this year.

The Hogs’ opener Jan. 5 at Texas A&M is in a tough venue and event though the Aggies are 4-4 at this point, they will be a ready for the Razorbacks.

But that is putting the cart before the horse.

The Hogs have a solid intersectional game at 8 p.m Wednesday when Georgia Tech (5-4) visits. Texas State is in Fayetteville for a 1 p.m. game on Saturday. The SEC Network is televising both.

Austin Peay visits on Dec. 28 for the final game before Arkansas plays at College Station eight days later.

It will be interesting to see how far the Razorbacks can progress before SEC play begins.