When I read a tweet quoting Minnesota head basketball coach Richard Pitino complimenting Arkansas freshman forward Daniel Gafford and saying that the young Razorback could be a first-round NBA pick one day, it instantly took me back to 1994 and a postgame TV interview of Nolan Richardson by Billy Packer.
Packer, the longtime top basketball analyst, made some kind of innocuous comment about getting the ball inside to Corliss Williamson being key to the game. You could kind of tell Packer was on autopilot.
Richardson then added a bit of turbulence to Packer’s flight. The Head Hog shocked everyone with the retort, “A blind man could have seen that.”
Again with Packer on autopilot, it took a second for Nolan’s comment to sink in, and you could see a shocked head movement by Packer and his eyes open wide with surprise for a second, but he had already blathered through the moment. Richardson, of course, had a wicked grin on his face.
SEC Freshman of the Week
Arkansas freshman forward Daniel Gafford was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday, Dec. 11 following his performance in two wins last week. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and a career-high six blocks against No. 14 Minnesota on Saturday, and had 14 points and six rebounds against Colorado State on Tuesday. Gafford is the first Razorback to earn the honor since Anton Beard on Feb. 23, 2015.
Likewise, It’s obvious the 6-10 Gafford has NBA athletic ability. Hog fans have seen it over the course of nine games this season. However, it probably was even more evident in Hogs’ 95-79 victory over previously No. 14-ranked Minnesota last Saturday.
Gafford wasn’t chomping on cupcake competition when he authoritatively swatted two shots on a single possession against the Golden Gophers or when it took him just a single bounce and two steps for him to legally make his way from just inside the 3-point line to the rim for a thunderous one-hand dunk in traffic.
In just 21 minutes, Gafford had 16 points, 7 rebounds, 6 blocks and an assist. He was 8 of 8 from the field, though he was 0 of 3 from the free-throw line. Gafford’s doing his offensive damage, for the most part, without the Hogs’ running plays for him, but he has good hands and is ready for the pass when his teammates penetrate. And he does know how to finish, with emphasis.
Minnesota’s big man Reggie Lynch is likely an NBA talent himself, but he couldn’t stay off the bench because of foul problems. Part of that was because of the quickness of Arkansas’ front court.
Had Lynch been able to handle his own foul situation better, perhaps he could have slowed Gafford down a bit?
Gafford is still young and while he specializes in making athletic plays, he is still going to struggle at times against experienced big men because of his defensive aggressiveness.
That’s O.K., though. You can’t teach the motor that Gafford plays with. He’ll learn to reign it in when he needs through experience. He’s already come miles in that area since the first game.
Razorback head coach Mike Anderson has said Gafford works hard and wants to learn in practice. You can literally see that from his improvement so far. If he grows as much over the next 10 games as he has in his first 11 — which might not be possible — Gafford’s will be scary good down the stretch in SEC play.
That said Hog fans shouldn’t be surprised if he does have a lull in SEC play. Most freshmen do. There will be a learning curve, and conference opponents will have more time to devise scouting reports that will attack his weaknesses. Gafford’s strengths far outweigh his weaknesses.
The great thing about this Razorback squad is that its success doesn’t rest on one or two or even three players. While players do have distinct roles, Anderson’s system gives every regular the license to score within their role. An off night by one Razorback isn’t going to throw the whole plan off kilter.
And of course, Gafford isn’t the Hogs’ first scoring option. Senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon take care of that. But Anderson has a about 10 Razorbacks who are capable of scoring double figures any night within the confines of Arkansas’ offense. That is an asset.
Speaking of filling roles, Razorback senior forward Dustin Thomas ran the pants off the Golden Gophers’ transition defense early in the game, and that made a huge difference for all his teammates by setting the game’s tempo. Minnesota isn’t afraid of a fast pace, but they weren’t up to the one the Hogs’ set early in the game.
The Golden Gophers and the Razorbacks essentially took the same amount of shots in the first half with Arkansas taking 33 and Minnesota 31, but the pace of the game was the Hogs, and Arkansas made a torrid 66.7 percent of its shots (22 of 33) in the first half, while Minnesota connected on 45.2 percent (14 of 31), which isn’t bad, but that percentage fell off as their legs got tired.
The pace began to show more in Minnesota’s second-half shooting percentage which dropped off to 36.7 percent (11 of 30). The Razorbacks weren’t as hot in the second half, but still made 48.6 percent of their shots (11 of 35). Those number show how the wear and tear of Arkansas’ pace can bread down even a good team like the Golden Gophers.
There will be a lot of nights where the Hogs don’t shoot as well as they did against Minnesota, but setting that rapid pace is part of Anderson’s game plan of wearing down teams mentally and physically with pace and pressure on both ends of the court.
Last week I was fairly critical of the Razorbacks for wasting minutes with poor play in the still unexplainable blow-out loss to Houston and in the early moments in a victory over Colorado State, but to their credit the Razorbacks made use of every meaningful minute against Minnesota, and it was thrilling to see.
Following the game, Anderson said the first sell-out Walton Arena crowd in three seasons was Arkansas at its best.
Anderson might have been overselling the crowd a bit. Old timers like me have seen Walton Aren when it is truly rocking, but it was fantastic to see and hear that kind of response from Hog Hoops fans in December, once again.
When a team gives Arkansas fans something to cheer for on a consistent basis, they always respond, no matter the sport.
Fast Start for Morris
New Razorback football coach Chard Morris was on hand for a portion of the game, and it was good for him to see, feel, and hear what Razorback support is like in person.
Like Anderson, Morris’ style of play is at a pace that will have Razorback fans roaring once he’s able to fully implement his system. It will take him some time like it did Anderson to refit the roster to his needs, but if offensive excitement is what fans want, then Morris’ resume says he’s able to supply it.
Morris is already fast at work on that. It’s impressive that two players he was recruiting at SMU flipped their commitment to Arkansas over the weekend, but what stood out even more to me was that Morris and members of his staff were able to convince Ashdown cornerback LaDarrius Bishop to flip his commitment from Mississippi State and Arkansas.
The departure of Dan Mullen and his staff from Mississippi State to coach at Florida did open the door for Arkansas to make a move on Bishop, but Morris and members of his staff successfully closed the deal on Bishop, who could have gone to Florida, Oklahoma State, Mississippi State or others.
Keeping an athlete like Bishop (6-1,190) who has superior size for a cornerback and excellent speed (4.35 40-yard dash) is the type of recruiting payoff Morris is going to need to be successful at Arkansas.
The two Texas players Morris pulled into the fold are receiver Mike Woods (6-2, 190) of Magnolia, Texas, and offensive lineman Silas Robinson (6-4, 315). Woods has 4.4 speed and plans to enroll in January. That is a solid start. The early signing runs Dec. 20-23.