Razorbacks face Austin Peay in final test before SEC slate begins

The Arkansas Razorbacks have a meeting with the Governors tonight, the Austin Peay Governors at 7 p.m. in Walton Arena, and it will be their their final action of the year.

After tonight’s contest against Austin Peay (8-4), coach Mike Anderson’s squad won’t suit up for a game until Jan. 5 when they open their Southeastern Conference slate at College Station against Texas A&M.

The scheduling divergence likely has to do with Arkansas working ahead on scheduling, and the SEC backing the start of the conference schedule to the first Saturday in January after it had scheduled conference games for the final week of December the past two seasons.

Scheduling is always tricky even without the league’s throwing a wrench into the system, but on the other hand, the Razorbacks have rarely drawn well during the height of bowl season when football is occupying the minds of most college sports fans.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Who: vs. Austin Peay
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 28
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Watch: SEC Network Plus (online stream)

Remaining schedule

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 and his assistants will put the Razorbacks through their paces next week with only practice on the docket. We’ll see how much the Hogs can gain from their mini preseason camp when they show up at College Station.

But first tonight’s game. It is not televised, but it will be streamed by SEC Network Plus.

The Hogs (8-3) need to make the most of their final game of the year because after a strong start to the season their play has been spotty over the last four games in which they are 2-2.

The two losses aren’t horrible — 78-77 to Western Kentucky and 69-65 to Georgia Tech — but it is concerning that both came in the friendly confines of Walton Arena where Anderson-coached Razorbacks teams have rarely lost a nonconference game until stubbing their toe in back-to-back appearances.

The victories weren’t too convincing, though. Beating Texas-San Antonio, 79-67, and Texas State, 73-70, really does nothing for the Hogs’ NCAA Tournament resume. They aren’t bad teams, but those wins were expected. In fact, Arkansas’ mediocre performances were a bit alarming, even for a team as inexperienced as the Razorbacks.

Tonight’s game is another gain-nothing opportunity for the Hogs. Even though the Governors have won their last six games, it will be a shock to everyone’s system if the Razorbacks don’t win the game.

Anderson credited the Governors for being a tough, experienced basketball team that will push his Hogs physically.

“It’s a team that has experience,” Anderson said. “Some very, very talented players. They have balanced scoring, and they rebound the ball at a high clip.

“I think it’s going to be a very physical ballgame and we’ve got to match that physicality and rebound the basketball and try to get the tempo more to our liking,” Anderson said. “Have multiple possessions as opposed to having those games where it comes down to the last possession.”

During the Razorbacks 2-2 spell just before Christmas, the Hogs fell in love with the 3-point shot with the Hogs being content to fire away from the perimeter before establishing their brand and butter on the inside with All-American candidate Daniel Gafford.

The 6-11 forward is the Hogs’ meal ticket to success, but he must be fed. Arkansas’ offense needs to run through him. Gafford is not a black hole. He passes well out of the double-team, and shooters like Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones will find better shots if Gafford gets his touches.

The other Razorbacks will find the more double-doubles Gafford collects, the easier their game will be. Feeding Gafford will only put better quality scoring opportunities on his teammates’ plates.

Not only do the Razorbacks need to keep Gafford active in the paint on offense but point guard Jalen Harris also has to clean up his game.

Overall the sophomore transfer from New Mexico has played very well for the Hogs, but Georgia Tech confused him by overplaying him and that tough night bled into the Texas State game as well.

Going into the Yellow Jackets game, Harris led the nation in assist to turnover ratio averaging 7 assists and just 1 turnover a game, but in the last two contests he’s suffered four turnovers with just five assists. Gaudy numbers like that draw attention, and challenge coaches and players to take special note.

Harris is still ranked third in the nation in assist to turnover ratio of 5.62, and he leads in the SEC in assists with 6.6 a game. Those are fine numbers, but the Hogs need Harris to shake off that two-game slump and get back to facilitating his teammates at a high level. His play is as key to the Hogs’ success as Gafford’s.

The Razorbacks need their young players to keep improving, but for the Hogs to be at their best junior Adrio Bailey needs to play within himself. He is an “energy player” like Anderson said, but he seems to be pressing instead of playing with the flow of the game. His leadership and intensity can be a key for the Hogs, if he will just let it happen.

With such a young team, the extra practice time that next week provides can be beneficial to the Hogs. Concentrating on fundamentals and correcting mistakes before the conference opener might be just what the Hogs need to get off to a good start in SEC play.