FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson made reference to the classic 1990s film Friday during Razorbacks Media Day on Tuesday. The movie had to do with being pushed around. Anderson thinks his team no longer is growing up.
Anderson said he didn’t want his team to be “Debo’d.” Debo is the main villain in the film, a muscular bully of a man who picks on everyone in the neighborhood who weaker than he is. The past few seasons, as Anderson has built Arkansas back into an expected NCAA Tournament team, the Razorbacks were a bit like the character’s victims. They may have been tough enough against most, but when it came to the North Carolinas of the world, Arkansas was not quite up to snuff.
“Last time I visited with you guys we talked about taking that next step,” Anderson told the assembled press. “Obviously having a chance to play against North Carolina … you’re up five with three minutes to go [in a second-round tournament loss]. Still resonates with me. Now we’re talking about taking it to that next level.”
The focal points of the Arkansas team unquestionably are Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. The two senior guards announced on back-to-back days this summer to pull their names out of the NBA draft and return to Arkansas. They were the second- and third-leading scorers on the team and will be among those considered for preseason All-SEC honors later this fall.
They’re supplemented by the most highly touted high-school recruit Arkansas has landed since Bobby Portis. Freshman center Daniel Gafford is 6-foot-10 and was the 37th-ranked player in the Class of 2017. Some have said fans can expect him to immediately pick up where the now-graduated Moses Kingsley left off.
Anderson said that Gafford will be given playing time, but people should expect the usual freshmen ups and downs.
“Daniel is not the savior for our program,” Anderson said. “Daniel will come in and go at his own pace. That’s going to be the big key. Trust me: If it’s any indiciation what’s taken place throughout the summer, what’s taking place in practice right now, he will impact our team.”
Someone will have to replace Kingsley, though. The two-time All-SEC defender is gone, along with his 12 points and 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Gafford and Trey Thompson, Kingsley’s partner in the post last season, will combine at the Razorbacks’ de facto centers. Thompson’s biggest strength lies in his post defense and his passing. An informal survey of nine Arkansas players Tuesday resulted in eight of them calling Thompson the best passer on the team, guards included.
Senior point guard Anton Beard could start or come off the bench. Either way, count on him playing 20-plus minutes a night. Anderson said he’s down 10-to-15 pounds to about 185. The coach joked that until that happened, Anderson was quicker than Beard. A 10-point, 3-rebound, 3-assist season is about the expectation.
Where Arkansas needs development, and the perhaps the key to season, lies with guard CJ Jones and forward Adrio Bailey.
Jones provided instant offense as a 6-5 guard last season, but he played in only 21 games. His forte is shooting and getting to the rim. Anderson stressed that he wants Jones to become a better defender — that was part of the reason Jones played in just 21 games — and he likes what he’s seen so far.
“I think this past year he had a chance to sit there and watch quite a bit,” Anderson said. “I think that this summer, between this summer and this fall, no question about it — now he’s looking the part of the player we recruited here.”
Bailey is the linchpin. He’s about 6-6 and does not really have a position. And that’s OK in a sport that have evolved to being largely positionless. Bailey can play inside or outside, though his shooting from the perimeter is the weakest part of his offensive skill set. Defensively, he’s incredibly long and could end up being the best defender on the team. That’s Arkansas’ hope, anyway.
As for what to count on when the season starts, that’s to be determined. The SEC is better than it has been in years. College basketball preview magazines, for what they’re worth, all have Arkansas projected between 5th and 10th in the SEC. Fifth-place likely would get the Razorbacks back in the NCAA Tournament. Tenth would be a massive disappointment after the return of Barford and Macon, no matter how improved the league is.
Anderson is watching and waiting.
“I like this team right now. I may not be saying that in another couple months, but I like them right now.”
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