By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Not since his first season as head coach at Arkansas has Mike Anderson welcomed so many news faces into his program, and not once in his previous seven seasons as Head Hog has his team opened up against a high-major opponent. Factor in an overall respectable non-conference schedule followed by what may be the deepest SEC in terms of quality teams since, well, ever, and the sledding looks treacherous for the 2018-19 Arkansas Razorbacks as Anderson enters his eighth season at the helm.
Arkansas has 10 newcomers among the 13 on scholarship listed on the roster, but only 11 will suit up when the Hogs open their season Friday against old Southwest Conference rival Texas in the Armed Forces Classic at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX, a game set for 6 p.m. CT on ESPN.
“We get a chance to get a great evaluation early on,” Anderson said Tuesday during his Texas pre-game press conference. “We’re not playing at home, we’re not playing particularly on their homecourt, so we’ll find out a little bit more about ourselves real quick and early. Maybe that’s going to be a lesson for us. Whether we win or lose it’s going to be a lesson for our basketball team.”
Let the “lesson” session begin.
The series history favors the Hogs, but in this matchup — at least on paper — Texas appears to have the edge. According to 247Sports.com, Texas has nine players on its roster that were rated 4-star prospects coming out of high school, compared to only one — sophomore center Daniel Gafford — for Arkansas. Texas has a balance of veterans and youth, plus the Longhorns are playing in their homestate and already have a win on their early-season resume, 71-59, over Eastern Illinois on Tuesday.
“We play against a Texas Longhorn team that I think eventually is going to be ranked,” Anderson said. “They have three or four starters coming back. They had a great recruiting class, and obviously Shaka Smart does an outstanding job. His team got to the (NCAA) Tournament last year and played against a Nevada team that got to the Elite Eight. So I’m sure they’re feeling disappointed in what took place last year, but it’s a new year, new team.”
Smart begins his fourth season in Austin guiding a program that was 50-50 in the first three campaigns under his watch. Similar to Arkansas, the Longhorns prefer up-tempo basketball with a variety of trapping, pressure defensive schemes that extend full court.
“It’s going to be an uptempo game,” Anderson said. “They like to play pressure defense and press and get after it and Shaka feels like he has the athletes to do that. And we don’t go away from what we do. We’ll try to really get our defense to be the highlight of what we do, be the headliner. Our defense creating some easy offense for us, and hopefully we can develop our bench and get experience for a bunch of newcomers. Nine newcomers to our basketball team, so it’s going to be some unchartered waters. As they say, we’ll get more answers to the questions that are at hand.”
Arkansas traveled to Fort Bliss in El Paso on Wednesday as the Armed Forces Classic is a multi-day event that will have both teams taking part in clinics and other activities while interacting with military personnel leading up to Friday night’s game.
“What a great venue to do it, on ESPN at Fort Bliss in front of the servicemen,” Anderson said. “What a way to honor the troops and the people that protect our country. So it’s kind of a neat setting for us, and playing an outstanding Texas team.”
For Arkansas, an early-season rotation that only goes 9-deep starts with Gafford, the 6-11 El Dorado native who is the Hogs’ only returning regular starter. Gafford averaged 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in 22.6 minutes per game in ’17-18 as a freshman, and he averaged a double-double — 18.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks — in Arkansas’s three preseason dress rehearsals. Arkansas also got solid, consistent preseason production from sophomore-transfer point guard Jalen Harris (12.0 points, 7.3 assists, 3.3 turnovers); freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith Northside (22.7 points mostly on 19-of-31 shooting from 3, and only 3 turnovers); and sophomore junior-college transfer wing Mason Jones (15.7 points). That group appears to be the starting corps along wth junior forward Adrio Bailey, with sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien, freshman guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson, and freshman forward Reggie Chaney heading up the second unit. Freshman forward Ethan Henderson of Little Rock Parkview and freshman center Ibrahim “Ibby” Ali of Maumelle are also available.
For Texas, the big question mark is the availability of junior guard Andrew Jones, who last season was averaging a team-best 13.5 points when he was diagnosed with leukemia in early January and subsequently sidelined for the remainder of the season. Jones had been cleared to resume playing in preparation for ’18-19, but has been dealing with a broken toe since October. On Tuesday, Jones played sparingly against Eastern Illinois, logging 9 minutes off the bench and finishing with 1 point, 1 assist, and 1 steal. The Longhorns also rely heavily on veteran guards Kerwin Roach (12.0 points in ’17-18, and he missed the Eastern Illinois game serving a one-game suspension) and Matt Coleman III (team-high 13 points and 7 assists in the season opener). Senior stretch-4 Dylan Ostekowski averaged double figures last season for the ‘Horns after transferring from Tulane, and in the season opener he was one of three Texas players with 9 points. Texas’ bench is deeper than Arkansas’s, and there is no shortage of talent. Freshman guard Courtney Ramey, recruited by Arkansas, had 7 points and 6 assists in 23 minutes off the bench against Eastern Illinois, while 6-11 freshman Jaxson Hayes scored 12 points in 20 minutes in a reserve role.
Jones and Roach both have starting experience playing against Arkansas — a 77-74 Hogs’ win in the Lone Star Shootout in Houston in December 2016.
“It doesn’t faze me,” Bailey said Tuesday when asked about opening the season against a big-name opponent in Texas. “Just like we have to play Texas, they have to play Arkansas.”
Gafford said he’s heard about the Arkansas-Texas rivalry from the long-expired Southwest Conference era.
“What I have been hearing it’s like a real big rivalry,” Gafford said. “I mean what Coach Nolan (Richardson) told us the other day his record against Texas is 14-3.”
Over the years, Arkansas-v-Texas in basketball mattered:
Arkansas owns a healthy 87-67 advantage in the series. In its first-ever season of basketball (1923-24), Arkansas played Texas. Even though the two programs have only played each other five times since the 1990-91 season (when Arkansas broke from the SWC for the SEC), this will be the 155th all-time meeting in the series. Texas A&M (157 meetings) is the only team Arkansas has played more. Here’s a deeper dive into Hogs-v-‘Horns over the years …
— Late ’70s battles between Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton’s legendary Triplets — Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer, and Marvin Delph — and Texas coach Abe Lemons’ trio of Johnny Moore, Ron Baxter, and Jim Krivacs, including the Moncrief / Sports-Illustrated-cover game in Fayetteville in February 1978 in a season when the Hogs would rise to No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history en route to reaching the Final Four, the same season that Texas would win the then-prestigious NIT championship (it mattered back then) as Lemons would be recognized as national coach of the year.
— Early ’80s and mid-80s battles with U.S. Reid, Scott Hastings, Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson, and Joe Kleine matching up against the likes of LaSalle Thompson, Mike Wacker, and John Brownlee as both programs were battling at or near the top of the SWC.
— Late ’80s / early ’90s when Hogs’ Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson’s trio of Lee Mayberry, Todd Day, and Oliver Miller slugged it out with Texas coach Tom Penders’ trio of Lance Blanks, Travis Mays, and Joey Wright in epic, score-fest battles for SWC supremacy … arguably the most intense stretch of games in the long history of matchups between Arkansas and Texas were played during the 1989-90 season when the Hogs swept the ‘Horns in 3 games — all single-digit margin wins that had national relevance: The first was a 109-100 Arkansas win in Fayetteville in January 1990; followed by a dramatic, controversial 103-96 Arkansas overtime win in Austin in February 1990 (nationally televised by ABC) that became known as the “Strollin’ with Nolan” game after Richardson walked off the court in the final seconds of regulation to protest an intentional foul call on sophomore guard Lee Mayberry with Arkansas trailing, only to return for overtime after Mayberry dribbled up the floor and rose up to bury a 30-foot, game-tying triple that beat the buzzer; and finally, a hard-fought, 88-85 Arkansas victory in the Elite Eight in Dallas in March 1990 (nationally televised by CBS) that clinched Richardson’s first of three career Final Four berths while at Arkansas.
— Some combination of — SWC / Big 12 Player of the Year, All American, National College Player of the Year, Olympic gold medalist, 1st round NBA draft pick, NBA stat category leader (i.e. scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and/or blocks), NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA All Defensive 1st team, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, NBA All Star, NBA All Pro, NBA MVP, NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP, SI magazine cover, retired college number/jersey, and retired NBA number/jersey — can be found on the resumes of at least 21 players who have competed in this series during the modern era of college basketball (mid-70s to present): Sidney Moncrief (Arkansas), Ron Brewer (Arkansas), Jim Krivacs (Texas), Ron Baxter (Texas), Johnny Moore (Texas), LaSalle Thompson (Texas), Scott Hastings (Arkansas), Darrell Walker (Arkansas), Alvin Robertson (Arkansas), Joe Kleine (Arkansas), John Brownlee (Texas), Todd Day (Arkansas), Lee Mayberry (Arkansas), Oliver Miller (Arkansas), Lance Blanks (Texas), Travis Mays (Texas), Patrick Beverley (Arkansas), Kevin Durant (Texas), D.J. Augustin (Texas), Avery Bradley (Texas), and Jarrett Allen (Texas).
5 Things on My Pre-Game Radar for Arkansas-Texas:
1) Slow starts … we saw mostly ugly first halves when Arkansas stumbled into the lockerroom with a hemorrhage of turnovers and missed free throws while holding small leads against NCAA Division II oponents Tusculum (30-24) and Southwest Baptist (40-30) … although the Hogs cleaned things up for huge second halves in those games to win by an average margin of 43.0 points, a slow start against Texas might result in an early runaway for the ‘Horns … looking for Gafford to be locked in and aggressive early, and move the ball quickly and smartly when the double-team comes, for Bailey to not force offense early, for Harris to promote the ball movement FIRST by getting off the ball and not forcing too much off the bounce, and for Joe and Jones to not pass on open looks — ALL of these were scenarios that would have served Arkansas better coming out of the gates in preseason games … does Arkansas come out flat again, or ready for battle against Texas?
2) Playing through Daniel Gafford … this was actually one of my five pre-game keys last week, and really it applies to every game Arkansas will play in ’18-19 … for Arkansas to play and stay with a deep, talented Texas team, the halfcourt offense will function best IF it runs through Gafford, and once he has the ball it’s imperative that he moves decisively or passes out to beat double teams, and that he makes free throws to make teams pay for leaning, pounding, and hacking him — which will be part of the gameplan for teams that have frontline depth and fouls to spend in light of Gafford’s struggles at the foul line (only 33.3% in the preseason). When Gafford gets touches, it forces defenses to pick their poison in either doubling him and leaving open shooters or putting a big on an island trying to defend him. Advantage Gafford and Hogs the more Arkansas plays through him, so we’ll see if that is a priority against Texas.
3) Defense, and creating offense through turnovers and rebounding … the pieces are in place for Anderson’s most disruptive defensive team, eventually, and thus generating easy, transition offense should be a direct benefit … we’ll be watching to see how strong the on-ball defense is, how many deflections and steals the Hogs generate, and if Arkansas can push for transition offense after securing steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds … at minumim, will the on-ball perimeter D be ready to stop penetration, and if not does it cause Gafford to pick up cheap fouls defending penetration and plays at the rim? If Arkansas can force turnovers — the way Gafford runs the floor combined with Harris’s open-court speed and play-making ability, plus plugging in gritty defenders like Osabuohien, Chaney, and Sills — the combinations are there for some vintage 40 Minutes of Hell defense-to-transition-offense scenarios … but how soon? Conversely, Arkansas does not have the size, athleticism, or depth to match up against Texas at the small forward / wing spots, so will this cause a major defensive lapse for the Hogs that the ‘Horns can expose?
4) Free throw shooting … a key to winning away from home is getting to the foul line and cashing in, yet Arkansas struggled shooting freebies in the preseason … actually, the guard corps has been solid through three dress rehearsals, combining for 40-of-51 at the line for 78.4% … but frontcourt players are only 35-of-66 for 53.0%, including Gafford’s 6-of-18 effort for 33.3% … overall as a team, that’s 64.1% free-throw shooting in the preseason … we’ll be looking to see how effective Arkansas is attacking Texas defenders to draw fouls, how often Arkansas gets to the free throw line, and whether or not the Hogs can improve their free-throw shooting to at least 70%.
5) Three individual matchups I’ll be watching … Jerico Sims (6-9, athletic rim-protector) will be a good test inside for Gafford … Dylan Ostekowski (6-9 with inside-out shooting skill and high floor IQ) could be a matchup problem for the Hogs’ rotating forwards (Bailey, Osabuohien, and Chaney) similar to what North Carolina’s Luke Maye presented last year in the Tar Heels’ blowout win over Arkansas in the PK80 event in Portland … Matt Coleman III and Jalen Harris will each be running the show for their team, can Harris match productivity and effectiveness as a floor-leader?