For as achingly far off the pace as the Arkansas Razorback football program seems to be, I find myself shocked that this Hog basketball team could end up being pretty good despite a tumultuous offseason in which virtually everyone aside from Daniel Gafford left town.
The hardwood Hogs are a healthy 5-1 and that lone loss, the overtime opener to Texas where the coaching staff mysteriously allowed Kerwin Roach to loft a game-tying three at the end of regulation when a hard foul denying him a shot would have been advisable. Since that defeat, Arkansas has been really solid for the most part, and Mike Anderson may have inadvertently gotten a huge benefit from the surprise transfers of C.J. Jones and Darious Hall because their scholarships were freed up for others. And to be clear, Jones and Hall, though talented, were largely erratic and clearly not committed to the program for one reason or another.
Accordingly, while Gafford (19.8 points per game on 73 percent floor shooting, along with 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per outing) has been predictably excellent at both ends of the floor and has worked on fine-tuning his crafts, the supporting cast that arrived with very little aggregate floor experience has been a revelation. Lightly recruited guard Mason Jones has poured in 14 points per game and contributed some big moments, but perhaps most impressively has been a steady rebounder and floor leader for a team bereft of backcourt experience. Point guard Jalen Harris, who transferred from New Mexico, is not much of a perimeter threat, but he hits his free throws and is sporting a terrific 5-to-1 assist/turnover ratio.
Maybe the biggest strides have been made by junior forward Adrio Bailey. Hardly an offensive-minded player his first two years on campus, the 6-6 junior is putting up 11 points per game and hitting 68 percent of his field goal attempts. He’s developing a well-rounded floor game, too, with a respectable amount of rebounds, steals and blocks given the somewhat limited minutes he’s been playing. Bailey and Gafford are the only players on the team with extensive in-game experience against SEC competition, so as the latter continues his rapid ascent to lottery pick, the former needs to continue to morph into a complementary post presence, especially because the Hogs’ other interior players (Reggie Chaney, Jordan Phillips and Ethan Henderson) are all very raw, if unquestionably talented.
The player who may well determine how far this team is able to advance in 2018-19, though, is freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe. The rangy, high-flying Fort Smith product is already showing uncommon stamina for a player of his tender age, putting in just shy of 30 minutes per game and delivering nicely on that court time. Joe had a career-best 34 points, including 10 threes, against a Florida International team that was 7-1 before it got thoroughly trounced Saturday night in Bud Walton Arena. Joe’s soft touch was on display all night and he has been shockingly consistent for a teenager who relies so heavily on the long ball, scoring in double digits in every game so far and even on his colder-shooting nights finding ways to impact the game any way. Against Montana State, for instance, Joe struggled mightily to find his shooting touch, but offset his modest 10-point game with five assists and five steals.
Joe is a fearless, confident bomber from beyond the arc, and you likely won’t see his swagger wane once conference play begins. Even in what is expected to be a deep and rigorous SEC, what with Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky and Mississippi State comfortably nestled in the Top 25, this is still a conference where the also-rans simply aren’t that good, and Arkansas could easily find itself winning 10 to 12 games in league play if the cadre of young players keeps progressing.
Anderson seems to have a safer, tighter grasp on control of the team in the early going. Whereas last season, it appeared that there was a bit of a disconnect between the experience of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon when contrasted with the less-than-tested on-court compatriots, this year there appears a stronger bond already among the players involved. And while Anderson’s experience as the lead Hog has been a mercurial one, his best teams have always been those with the intangible chemistry necessary to thrive in big games. When Arkansas charged back valiantly against eventual national champion North Carolina in March of 2017, that effort was clearly and functionally the byproduct of a very steady backcourt taking control of a game that reeled out of hand early; conversely, last year’s opening-round loss to Butler, marked by a similarly terrible start, never felt like it was a game well-suited for the Razorbacks even as they stormed back in the first half to claim a short-lived lead. This team is decidedly light on crunch-time seasoning but if it plays as a cohesive, organized unit, then that comparative inexperience will have little ultimate bearing on the team’s success.