Paradoxically, the Arkansas basketball team has cratered at the worst possible time and seemingly is peaking at the perfect time. Nonsensical? Permit me to explain.
After the Razorbacks beat Tennessee in a thrilling league opener and positioned themselves in the national Top 25 for a hiccup, they promptly gagged six of their next nine league games, with the three victories coming by a whopping nine total points and four of the six defeats being by double digits. The team spent a month or so winning ugly and losing uglier, and that effectively negated the strong RPI they had amassed early in the year; as a result, those preliminary projections of the team as a reasonably high seed in the NCAA Tournament started to sink and that was purported to imperil this team’s long-term postseason plans.
Of course, Arkansas has recovered in much the same way it did a season ago to reel off four straight wins in a pivotal stretch. The Razorbacks followed a couple of uneven but authoritative wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt with a nice road victory against a depleted Ole Miss team whose longtime head coach had just announced his resignation, then on Saturday rewarded the fans’ patience by delivering a withering 94-75 blow to Texas A&M’s own tourney position in front of a sellout crowd at Bud Walton Arena. It was, without equivocation, the best performance of the season for the team, given the stakes at hand and considering that the Aggies had surged back to prominence after their bizarre string of five losses to open conference play.
Beating Texas A&M soundly at home effectively negated the Aggies’ rather comfortable win over the Hogs in College Station, but more importantly it cemented Arkansas’s own recovery from a midseason lull. Of course, these bracketology wizards vacillate from impressed to nonplussed on bizarre whims: They seemed so impressed with A&M’s resurgence after a long skid that the Aggies went from the outside looking in to being in the Top 25 poll and a top six or seven seed, while the Hogs, once beaten on the road at Starkville and then at Auburn, fell so far out of the rankings that they could do precious little else to author a return there.
While the Jaylen Barford-Daryl Macon duo continues to shine as far as pure scoring is concerned, the A&M game highlighted a few other components that have sputtered or run too quietly at times this year. C.J. Jones came off the bench and, true to form, didn’t hesitate to let it fly, netting 13 points on a respectable 5-for-7 shooting exhibition. Jones’ disappearance in conference play after a highly encouraging run on the back end of 2017 had been one of the more frustrating occurrences to envelop the team once it began SEC play; this was merely his second double-digit scoring effort in 14 conference games after he rang up seven games of 10-plus in the first 11 of the season.
Freshman wing Gabe Osabuohien has sprung into action lately as a nice sparkplug, logging six points on nifty drives to the basket against the Aggies while doing many useful things otherwise. Like fellow freshman Darious Hall, he’s agile and just a little bit unhinged out there, which is a good thing. There’s enough senior composure on the court at any given time that the Hogs can afford a sort of loose cannon that penetrates for baskets and chases after loose balls with reckless abandon. Hall and Osabuohien are great assets at this time of year — strong and lean athletes that might offer little scoring help most nights but are always capable of making two or three defensive stops and facilitate the offense’s movement.
It was a stagnant offense, as much as a slow-reacting defense, that had the Hogs on life support two short weeks ago. But now there’s energy there and it isn’t entirely coming from Macon and Barford, which is a blessing. Freshman center Daniel Gafford put together his best consecutive games of the season in the wins over Ole Miss and A&M, confidently stroking free throws and making good use of his body in backing down defenders. He’s fouling less frequently in the early stages of games, and as a result he stays in the flow of the action longer. The rangy freshman averages a healthy 22 minutes per contest but also commits 3.5 fouls per game, which means at any given critical juncture, his coaches may have him sidelined to preserve him for the final minutes. If Gafford can continue to rein in his contact, he’s going to be an even bigger force than what he already represents.
There’s still sufficient opportunity for this team to play its way into a better seed, or to conversely drop down the pecking order. Pollsters and pundits aren’t overly impressed with the Hogs at the moment, but they also seem to be reserving judgment based on the way last year’s squad finished. With another good week, and ideally two more victories, the Hogs likely secure themselves at least one bye in the somewhat convoluted SEC Tournament format, and possibly two.