Arkansas seniors Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley and Manuale Watkins / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley, and Manuale Watkins will play their final regular-season game of their Razorbacks careers at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bud Walton Arena when Arkansas hosts the Georgia Bulldogs.
It will be an emotional time for those young men, their teammates, and the fans that have rooted for them through some good and tough times. However, the trio and their head coach Mike Anderson made it clear that reflection can take place at the end of the season.
“Senior [Day] is a big deal, and it’s our last game here, but in our position, we can’t be emotional,” Hannahs said. “We can look back on all of that when the season is over. As a team, out to get a win against a really good Georgia team.”
Anderson said the season has moved by quickly and that it’s hard to believe that there is only one regular-season game left. He admitted Senior Day adds some emotion to the game that usually isn’t present, but added that the Hogs can’t afford to let it be a distraction.
“There’s a lot of emotion, but we have to get through that because it’s a big game,” Anderson said. “We’re playing for something, and Georgia is playing for something. We want to end our home schedule and our regular season on a positive note.”
The Razorbacks’ 78-65 loss to No. 12 Florida last Wednesday was not a major setback. In fact, their Ratings Percentage Index actually ticked up to No. 29 in the nation. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects the Hogs as a 10th seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Conventional wisdom is that the Razorbacks (22-8, 11-6 SEC) will be in the NCAA Tournament. That presumption, however, includes the Hogs taking care of business in their final home game and in their first-round game in the SEC Tournament, held March 8-12 in Nashville.
While the Razorbacks can be somewhat proud of their body of work thus far, their situation in the NCAA Tournament pecking order remains fluid.
A loss on Saturday to Georgia would send the Razorbacks limping to Nashville with a two-game losing streak. In that eventuality, the pressure to win their first-round SEC Tournament game would be immense. Three losses in a row might very well burst their NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Watkins said the Hogs plan to take things step by step.
“We’re not really thinking about the tournament,” Watkins said. “We want to be focused on the next practice and the next game and keep focused on what’s right in front of us. We know if we take care of that, God willing [making the NCAA Tournament] happens. We need to take care of this game, and if on Selection Sunday we get picked, that’ll be great. We’re not done yet.”
As things stand today, Georgia (18-12, 9-8) is on the outside looking in as far as NCAA Tournament projections go. After winning five of their last 6 games, Lunardi has the Bulldogs as one of the first five teams out of the bracket at this point. Lunardi considers Vanderbilt (16-14, 9-8) as the first team outside of the bracket.
A victory over the Razorbacks on Saturday would not vault the Bulldogs into the tournament field; however, it would put them in striking distance going into the SEC Tournament.
The Bulldogs are playing without 6-8 forward Yante Maten, who injured his knee against Kentucky, but Georgia has absorbed the loss by other players picking up the slack.
“Georgia is a team that’s trending up,” Anderson said. “They’ve won the last five out of six games, playing without their big man, Maten. They’ve got other guys stepping up for them. It starts with J.J. Frazier. His numbers have been amazing. He’s putting the team on his back.”
The 5-10 guard is averaging 18.5 ppg., this season, but over the last four games, he has averaged 31 ppg., scoring 36, 28, 29 and 31 points respectively against Kentucky, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn for coach Mark Fox’s Bulldogs.
The dynamic Frazier will be a matchup problem for the Razorbacks who have struggled with stopping quick guards off dribble penetration. Frazier also has excellent range on his jump shot that must be accounted for.
“J.J. Frazier is a great player,” Hannahs said. “He’s always been a problem for teams on the offensive end. He’s really crafty, can really shoot it and is really quick. We have to be ready for him, but it’s not a one-man-show. Georgia is a good team as they have proven, and it’s going to be a tough game.”
However, Watkins said the Razorbacks would not make major adjustments to stop Frazier.
“We’re going to do what we do,” Watkins said. “We’re not going to change anything. We’ve got to be ready. This time of year, the team that plays with the most heart and is the most aggressive usually wins. It’s not always the team that’s been the best over the course of the year, but the team that’s hot, and Georgia is hot right now. We have to be ready.”
Florida sliced up Arkansas’ man and zone defenses on the half court last Wednesday by spreading the floor, cutting, penetrating, and dishing. However, the most damage was done in transition as the Gators whizzed past the Razorbacks.
Georgia is not the team that Florida is, nor will the Bulldogs play at the same pace as the Gators, who actually sped the Hogs up at the O’Connell Center.
The Bulldogs are a mid-tempo team whom the Razorbacks will attempt to push out of their comfort zone in the friendly confines of Walton Arena. Frazier can compete at that speed, but the Razorbacks will test to see if the other Bulldogs can.
While the focus of Saturday will be winning the game, Hannahs, Kingsley and Watkins have left a mark on Arkansas’ program, and it will be a bittersweet day for them and Razorbacks fans.
“We have three outstanding young men, who have really grown in our program,” Anderson said. “They have been great leaders for our program. We had seven new players come in this year, and they were about the team more than themselves. I think that’s why you have seen us come together over the last several weeks.”
Hannahs, a Little Rock native, started his career at Texas Tech, but he has always been a dyed-in-the-wool Razorback.
“I spent two years in Texas, but other than that I’ve spent my whole life in Arkansas and have always been a Razorback,” said Hannahs, who needs just 33 points the rest of the season to break 1,000 in his two years at Arkansas. “When I was at [Pulaski Academy], being a Razorback is what I wanted to do, and the fact that it happened has been amazing.
“When I went to Lubbock, I never thought this would happen. But when Manny’s dad [UA assistant coach Melvin Watkins] called me and offered me that scholarship when I decided to transfer, that’s the best day of my life. Getting to call my parents that day and telling them I was coming to Arkansas was one of the coolest moments of my life and it always will be. I’ll always be thankful to Coach Watkins and Coach Anderson and the whole staff for giving me that opportunity. It’s been amazing, and we want to keep making it amazing, make this a great season to go out on.”
Hannahs said perseverance paid off for him as a prep and college player. He credited Arkansas staffer and former Razorback great Lee Mayberry for working with him to develop his all-around game.
“I just kept working and never gave up,” Hannahs said. “It’s kind of crazy how it happened. I love basketball, and I always believed I could play at a high level. I went to Lubbock when Texas Tech offered, but I always had that Hog blood in me. I wasn’t ready to be a Tech fan for the rest of my life. I’m so happy it worked out that I was able to come here and that I can be a Hog for the rest of my life.”
Kingsley, who was named to the SEC’s Community Service Team for the second time in his career, credited the Razorback program and the Northwest Arkansas community for helping him grow into a man.
“Growing up in Nigeria and playing high school basketball in Mississippi and then coming here, it has been a journey, but it’s been an amazing one,” Kingsley said. “Spending the last four years here has been great. I’ve known Manny since high school, playing AAU basketball, and we look back and see how far we’ve come. It’s amazing.
“I’m glad I’m graduating with these two [Hannahs and Watkins]. It’s been a special time. I appreciate the community here. I didn’t have my parents here so I feel like everyone here has helped raise me.”
Watkins, a Fayetteville High grad, has had a different experience than most players with his father being an assistant coach. He walked on to Arkansas as a freshman, turning down offers from smaller schools for the opportunity to play on the major college level. His hustle and determination won him a scholarship, and he has helped the Hogs as a key back-up and later as a starter during his career.
“I didn’t grow up in Arkansas, so I didn’t have that ‘I was born a Razorback’ mentality, but I’ve been here six years with my dad being a coach, and now I do feel like I’ve been a Razorback my whole life,” Watkins said. “All the experiences I’ve had and getting to be a Hog, I love it.”
Watkins said his time at the UA and in the Razorbacks program hasn’t solely boiled down to basketball.
“I give myself a lot of credit for just sticking with it, but the coaching staff has really helped,” Watkins said. “With them it’s about basketball, but it’s also about life. I’ve learned life lessons that I’ll be using as I move on. I’ve grown as a player and a person, and a lot of that goes to the staff and the people here who worked to help me succeed.”
But Saturday Watkins said his and his teammates’ minds will be focused primarily on beating Georgia.
“It’ll be special, but we’re trying to win,” Watkins said. “I love the fans and I love Bud Walton Arena, and I wish I had four more years. But I’m going to wake up Saturday with one thing on my mind, trying to win the game. You can’t let senior night get in the way of that. That’s my outlook on it. Every game is a must-win for me and our team.”