By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas does not have time to bask in the glow of a 5-game winning streak. Not with the toughest week of the young season about to unfold, and not when the 5-1 Razorbacks are looking for their first win away from home.
Arkansas’s first true road test comes Wednesday against Colorado State (4-4) in Fort Collins, CO — a game set to tip at 9 p.m. CT on CBS Sports Network — followed by a home game against Western Kentucky (4-3, ESPN BPI No. 50) on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The Rams of the Mountain West are up first, giving the Hogs a second opportunity at winning away from home after a 73-71 overtime loss to Texas in the season-opener in El Paso, TX. Colorado State is on a 3-game losing streak, but in their last game the Rams stayed close in an 86-80 road loss Saturday against in-state rival Colorado of the Pac-12.
“They have a new coach (Niko Medved) and I think they’ve got some really good players,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said Monday of his teams’ mid-week opponent. “They’ve got five guys, seems like they are scoring in double figures. And of course a lot of new players just like we have a lot of new players. They are trying to find their identity with their team. It’s the first true road game for us and I’m anxious to see how we respond going to a place where we don’t sleep in our own bed and we are playing in a different venue.”
Anderson, whose Hogs have played at home for their 5 consecutive wins, was in a similar situation last season when he took his 5-1 Arkansas team into its first true road game. That turned out to be a 91-65 disaster at the hands of the host Houston Cougars.
“As a coach you want to see if your game will travel,” Anderson said. “Will your defense travel? Will your offense execute the things we’ve been working on. Will that travel? Rebounding is going to be a big key in this game here. Can we continue to get the productivity off our bench? That’s been a big key. We’ve got some guys that are starting really to figure out their roles and that continues to make us a better basketball team.
“So it’s a quick turnaround having to go and play against Colorado State, but we will look forward to the opportunity and look forward to the challenge.”
For Colorado State, 6-6 junior guard Kris Martin (15.7 points) leads three Rams averaging at least 15 points per game, and 6-11 junior center Nico Carvacho is averaging a double-double (12.0 points and 10.3 rebounds). Colorado State is averaging 80 points per game on 48.6% field goal shooting.
“Looking at their team I think they want to play anywhere from medium to uptempo,” Anderson said. “I think they push the basketball. They’ve got perimeter guys that can really knock shots down. They’ve got a big guy that was there last year that played for them. This coach encourages them to get the ball up the floor and get into early offense and attack the glass. They’ve got some pretty good athletes on their basketball team.
“I think it’ll be a good ballgame. It’s a good test for us.”
Arkansas’ 121-89 win over Florida International on Saturday was the Hogs’ most recent opportunity for continued team and individual growth. The Razorbacks’ defense is arguably the best it has been in Anderson’s eight seasons at Arkansas: 36.0% opposition field-goal shooting, 27.0% opposition 3-point field goal shooting, minus-24 in turnovers, substancial advantage in points-off-turnovers, and plus-45 in steals/blocks. After losing the rebounding battle in its first four games, Arkansas has finished tops on the glass in its last two outings (plus-19) to pull almost even on the season (only minus-4 rebounding through six games).
“You’ve got to take care of the basketball … you’ve got to be able to rebound the basketball,” Anderson said of some of the keys to his team winning its first road game of the season. “Hopefully the guys starting out can play well. Our bench has got to play well, so again, I’m just looking for energy and effort, that’s all. Continue to build on what we’ve been doing here and see if our game can travel. I think that’s the biggest thing, if your game travels.”
Arkansas has gotten the bulk of its production from its starters, two of which have now garnered SEC Player of the Week honors in 2018-19.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe had a career-high 34 points (including 10-of-13 shooting from 3) against FIU on Saturday, and on Monday he was named SEC Player of the Week, joining sophomore center Daniel Gafford who also has received that honor this season. Joe’s 34-point night was the most points scored in a single game so far this season in the SEC, it was one point shy of the single-game scoring mark for a freshman at Arkansas (Bobby Portis had 35 in 2013-14), and it tied him for second-most with former Hog guard and current assistant coach Scotty Thurman, who had two 34-point games as a freshman during the ’92-93 season.
Joe scored 14 of his points during a 4-minute, 37-second span late in the first half that stretched a 24-20 Arkansas lead to 48-28 with 3:43 left before the break. He had 17 points as Arkansas led FIU 58-35 at halftime, and he had another 17 points as the Hogs outscored the Panthers 63-54 in the final 20 minutes.
Joe’s 10 made 3-pointers is tied for third-most in a game by a Razorback, and his 76.4% shooting from 3 is tied for the best 3-point percentage in SEC history for those that made at least 10 in a game. He’s now 24 of 52 from distance on the season for 46.2%, which ranks second in the SEC. The Fort Smith native also ranks in the SEC: sixth in scoring (16.3 points per game), fourth in steals (2.0 per game), first in 3-pointers made (4.0 per game, which ranks 9th in the NCAA), and 10th in overall field goal percentage (48.5%). Joe is the only player in the league to rank in the Top 10 in both field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. He and Gafford are the only two Hogs to score in double figures in all six games.
“He’s ‘Every Day Joe’, he just does what he’s supposed to do each and every day,” Anderson said. ” Come out and work hard. He’s grounded. And I go back to his upbringing, and even as he’s gotten here. He just comes in with his lunch pail every day ready to come to work.”
Gafford recorded his third double-double of the season against FIU — he had 3 in 35 games as a freshman — as he finished with 23 points (9-of-12 field goals and 5-of-8 free throws), 12 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 1 steal in 23 minutes. Gafford leads the SEC in field goal percentage (73.0%), he’s second in scoring (19.8 points per game), third in rebounding (8.7 per game), and fourth in blocked shots (2.3 per game).
Sophomore wing Mason Jones recorded his firsr career double-double against FIU — 19 points and 10 rebounds. He’s third on the team in scoring (14.0 points per game), second in rebounding (6.2 per game), and second in assists (3.0 per game). His 45.2% 3-point shooting is also among the leaders in the SEC.
Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris was one point shy of becoming the third Razorback with a double-double against FIU as he finished with 9 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds, and only 1 turnover in 26 minutes. It was Harris’s second game of the season with at least 10 assists, and he now has 39 assists against only 7 turnovers through six games. His 6.5 assists per game is third in the SEC, and his 81.5% free throw shooting leads Arkansas.
Junior forward Adrio Bailey had 10 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks, 1 steal, and 1 assist in 16 minutes against FIU, and Bailey has now scored in double figures in five of the Hogs’ first six games — consistent scoring production that Arkansas had not gotten from the 4-spot in recent seasons. Bailey is shooting 64.9% field goals and 68.0% free throws.
Beginning with Arkansas’s 73-72 win over Indiana in the third game of the season, the Hogs’ bench play has picked up as Gabe Osabuohien, Reggie Chaney, Desi Sills, and Keyshawn Embery-Simpson have all averaged double-digit minutes while providing a lift at both ends of the floor.
After playing the Rams on the road Wednesday, the Razorbacks return to Arkansas to play five consecutive in-state games (four at home in Fayetteville, one in North Little Rock) to round out December, including Western Kentucky at BWA on Saturday and Georgia Tech at BWA on Dec. 19. The Razorbacks open up SEC play at Texas A&M on Jan. 5, 2019.