It’s hard to imagine a better night for the Arkansas Razorbacks than Tuesday night.
Mike Anderson’s Hogs played perhaps their best game of the season against what has been the best team in the SEC through the bulk of the season in the final home game for seven seniors.
Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, Arlando Cook, Daryl Macon, Dustin Thomas, Trey Thompson, and J.T. Plummer said goodbye to Bud Walton Arena in fine fashion as Arkansas defeated No. 14 Auburn, 91-82, in front of a raucous crowd of Razorbacks fans who showed their appreciation for the departing group that some have labeled the most experienced team in the nation.
That factoid about Arkansas’ experience may be true in terms of classification, but only Beard and Thompson have suited up for the Hogs for all four years of the their collegiate career.
Thomas transferred in from Colorado as a junior, while Barford, Macon, and Hall all matriculated to Arkansas from junior colleges.
Arkansas at Missouri
Date: Saturday, March 3
Time: 5 p.m.
Location: Mizzou Arena, Columbia
So, that group seniors have only played together for two years, but there is no questioning that a bond among them and their other teammates has solidified of late. The Razorbacks have won six of their last seven games and the squad appears to be peaking for tournament time.
The Razorbacks (21-9, 10-7) scorched nets against Auburn (24-6, 12-5), shooting 52.6 percent of their three-point shots and 52.5 percent from the field.
Auburn hit just 25 percent of their three-point shots and 34.4 percent of their shots from the field. The Tigers stayed within striking range thanks to their dribble penetration and their ability to cash in on free throws. Auburn hit 31 of their 34 freebies for a stellar 91.2 percent, while the Razorbacks made just 19 of their 30 free throws for 63.3 percent.
In a real sense, the game was a microcosm of the careers of the seniors. Barford (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Macon (16 points, 6 assists) scored buckets with each of them soaring past the 1,000-point mark in just two seasons. Beard added 11 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Cook, Thomas, and Thompson filled in the gaps, playing their roles and doing the blue-collar work.
While it was senior night, freshman Daniel Gafford stole the show. The 6-11 forward from El Dorado scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked 7 shots, and dished 2 assists against the undersized Tigers. Auburn’s lack of size had something to do with his dominance, but Gafford put on a showcase performance that energized the already juiced crowd.
While no Hog fan wants to think about it, Tuesday night might have been Gafford’s last home game as a Razorback, too.
The incredibly athletic young man could be playing his way into being a one-and-done performer if he continues to improve at the rate he has in the last month. His offensive skills are raw, but his upside is hard to ignore.
If Gafford is projected to be a lottery pick after the season, he almost has to take his show to the NBA. The difference in money between a lottery pick and mid- to late-round draft pick is millions of dollars. Millions that can’t be made up down the road.
If Gafford’s not considered to be a firm lottery pick, it might behoove him to continue to develop under Arkansas’ staff. If he stays another season, Gafford could develop into a top 5 pick in 2019.
But, that is really putting the cart before the horse.
While the Hogs are done playing at home for the season, there is a lot of season left. The Razorbacks only seem to be getting better as the regular season gives way to March Madness.
Most feel Arkansas has done enough already to merit a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Hogs who play Missouri at 5 p.m. Saturday at Columbia, still have a ton to play for in that final game and next week in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
Defeating Missouri on the road would not only be a boon to Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament resume, but it would also earn them one of the four coveted double-byes in the SEC Tournament.
Arkansas is unable to catch Tennessee or Auburn which are tied atop the league standings with 12-5 records. One or the other will win the league Saturday, or they will tie, taking the top-two seeds in the SEC Tournament.
At the moment, the Razorbacks are tied with Florida with 10-7 records in the SEC. Kentucky, who plays Ole Miss tonight (Wednesday) is a half game back at 9-7. With Kentucky and Florida playing each other at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Arkansas will get at least the fourth-place seed if it defeats Missouri on Saturday.
As unlikely as it may be, the Razorbacks would get the third-place seed, if Ole Miss upsets Kentucky tonight at Rupp Arena, and then the Wildcats beat Florida on Saturday at the O’Connell Center.
Getting the double bye would advance the Razorbacks to the March 9 quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, which would give the Hogs a better shot at winning the SEC Tournament. Arkansas has only won the tournament once in 2000 with a team that featured Joe Johnson, Brandon Dean and current assistant coach T.J. Cleveland.
A SEC Conference Tournament Championship would be an outstanding accomplishment for this team that started off so strong before facing some bumps in the road before putting things together for the usual rally Anderson gets out of his teams at this time of year.
The conference is full of good teams, but the tourney seems to be as wide open as it has been since Arkansas joined the league in 1991-92.
Winning the SEC Tournament is a goal unto itself, but last season the NCAA Selection Committee awarded tournament champions with better seeding. One wold think that would be the case again this year.
If Arkansas beats Missouri and then wins the SEC Tournament, the Hogs possibly could work themselves into a sixth seed. Maybe even a fifth?
That’s a chunk of speculation to chew on, but it all starts with a very tough road trip to Missouri on Saturday.