Returning Hogs hold future in their hands

If Arkansas basketball fans haven’t already turned the page on the 2018-19 basketball season, it’s time to do so.

Daniel Gafford did it over a week ago when he opted not to play in the NIT and to begin training for the NBA Draft. It’s time for fans to let it go, too.

After falling 63-60 to Indiana in the second round of the NIT last Saturday in Bloomington, the Razorbacks came out talking about next season rather than this one.

No doubt, coach Mike Anderson and his staff have fully turned their attention to finish off their 2018-19 recruiting class.

Whether it’s from the last play, the last game, or the last season, athletes and coaches are trained throughout their careers to move on. Like sharks who will drown if they do not constantly swim ahead to rush water through their gill slits to take in air, coaches and players can’t get bogged down in what has come before.

Moving on gives them the chance to learn, develop, and improve.

Learning, improving and developing are all going to be essential for next season if the Razorbacks — players and coaching staff alike — want to avert another subpar season like they experienced this year.

While Anderson and his staff can improve this team on the recruiting trail, there does not appear to be a four- or five-star whale to land that will instantly make things better. Someone will take Gafford’s spot on the roster, but there’s not a talent of Gafford’s magnitude out there to be had.

So it’s up to the returning Razorbacks to learn, develop, and improve as individual players and as a team.

Now, it is a myth that players do not develop in Anderson’s program. Gafford was a significantly better player as a sophomore than he was as a freshman, just like his role model Bobby Portis was when he exited Arkansas after his sophomore season.

While Gafford was a more talented athlete than Portis, I’d argue Portis left as a better player because while a good athlete, Portis had to rely more on skills than pure athletic ability.

Gafford added some post moves, became very good at his end of the give-and-go, improved his perimeter defense, and further developed his already exceptional hands going into his sophomore season. However, Gafford still relied more on his innate athletic ability and hard-driving motor than his skills.

Gafford’s going to make his money in the NBA because of his motor, his ability to guard multiple spots on the floor, and that quick-twitch explosiveness that allows him to play above the rim. He’s not a fully cooked product as he leaves Arkansas’ program, but few players in all the college game are after two seasons. Gafford will be drafted this summer for what he is, but more importantly for his perceived upside.

Gafford’s shooting stroke is smooth enough that he will become a better shooter from outside the paint and the free-throw line if he is willing to put in the time. His basketball I.Q. will also grow just by working with professionals. If he has the desire to hone his skills, he certainly has the opportunity.

Gafford’s best ball is clearly ahead of him if he wants it to be.

The same can be said for the Razorback teammates he left behind. Should no player transfer out, every Razorback can return for next season, hopefully as an improved player. That’s good because there is talent on this team. Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Jalen Harris, and Mason Jones make a solid and now experienced backcourt to build a team around.

Talk about development; Sills is a fine example. Sills became the Hogs’ best on-the-ball defender, and in the final 10 games or so, he was stroking it from the three-point line. He also can take the ball to the basket. He went from being a good college prospect coming out of Jonesboro to arguably being the Hogs’ most versatile returning player in Anderson’s program by the end of the year.

That’s saying a lot when Isaiah Joe is on your team. Joe is an exceptional shooter who tied the SEC record for most three-pointers in a season, but he also has a sneaky all-around game thanks to his great hands, defensive I.Q., and willingness to give up his body on the defensive end.

Harris is already one of the SEC’s best assist men and is solid on defense. If he can build confidence in his shot over the summer, the floor is only going to open up for him and the other Razorbacks on the offensive end.

Mason Jones is talented and explosive offensively. He made things happen for the Hogs at times this season, but he also had a knack for fading away. That is definitely an issue with his game that he can erase.

Likewise Keyshawn Embery-Simpson played well at times, making valuable contributions throughout the season.

Freshman Reggie Chaney showed glimpses all season of the potential he has to be effective on both ends of the court. Most expect him to be a regular in the lineup next year. He has the type of size, quickness, and lateral maneuverability that can make him very dangerous at the point of the press in Anderson’s defensive scheme.

With a couple of plays against Providence, freshman Ethan Henderson opened a lot of eyes, showing why he is on scholarship. Adrio Bailey and Gabe Osabuohien play hard and make positive contributions, but they certainly have the ability to improve before next fall.

One thing we learned from their 84-72 whipping of Providence on the road and their 63-60 loss at Indiana was this Razorback squad on very short notice was able to perform about as well without Gafford as with him against middling competition like the NIT offers.

Unfortunately, the top half of the SEC will likely be too good for the NIT next season just like it was this year. The Razorbacks went 6-8 in games decided in by four points or in overtime this season.

Had they flipped that number and gone 8-6 in those games, the Razorbacks might have nudged their way into the NCAA Tournament? Maybe not, but it would have been close.

There are tangible aspects of each player’s game that they can improve in the offseason which would help the Razorbacks improve next season.

However, there is one intangible that might help them more than any skill, and that’s toughness.

Arkansas played hard last season, but the Razorbacks did not play tough.

The Hogs generally started slow and when they needed to execute at the end of games, sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. We saw them build double-digit leads at times, but almost always opponents were able to erase them. It’s cliched, but the most consistent thing about the Razorbacks was their inconsistency.

All of those are examples of a lack of mental and sometimes physical toughness.

The Razorbacks did not have tone-setter last year.

They missed a guy like a Corey Beck, or a Bobby Portis or a Sidney Moncrief who would lead and hold his teammates to a high standard of performance day in and day out whether it was a practice or a game.

It may be the case that players with hearts like that are born rather than developed, but I do remember a player named Nick Davis, who had basically been a role player in his two previous years with the Razorbacks, that became a tone-setter and a leader for Arkansas as a senior in 1998.

Going back further, in 1993 seniors Darrell Hawkins and Robert Shepherd set the tone for a squad whose underclassmen core — Scotty Thurman, Corliss Williamson, Beck, Clint McDaniel, and Dwight Stewart — would go on to win the 1994 national title and be runner-up in 1995.

Likewise, in 1989 senior guard Keith Wilson set the tone for a talented group including Lee Mayberry, Todd Day, and Oliver Miller who would go on to win four consecutive regular-season conference championships, three in the Southwest Conference and one in the SEC.

So, maybe a tone-setter or two will develop among the returning Razorbacks this season. I do believe experience and confidence are aspects of mental toughness that have to be forged in game competition, something the Razorbacks did lack going into last season with so many freshmen and newcomers filling the roster.

Inexperience won’t be a crutch for the Razorbacks next year if Anderson can retain the bulk of his players. Unfortunately player retention is always an “if” in today’s game where an ever growing percentage of college basketball players seek greener pastures by transferring.

However, maybe this year, the Razorbacks could benefit from a graduate transfer entering Anderson’s program? We’ll have to wait and see.

Whatever the case may be, it’s on Anderson, his staff, and the Razorbacks to find a way to be better next season.

An 18-16 season that ends with a close loss in the second round of the NIT is no one’s definition of success at Arkansas.

It’s up to the Razorbacks to turn the page on the disappointment of this season and move forward to greater success. Only they have the opportunity to make it happen.