The Arkansas Razorbacks have been playing for nearly two months, but the season starts for real at 5 p.m. Saturday when the Hogs face Texas A&M at College Station, Texas, in both squad’s SEC opener.
The Razorbacks are 9-3 on the season, while Billy Kennedy’s Aggies are 6-5, but really you can throw those records out. Yes, they mean a little, but not terribly much.
Conference play is a different animal, and with every SEC team having the last week off, Saturday’s SEC slate will include some of the best-scouted games of the seasons.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Who: vs. Texas A&M
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 5
Where: College Station, Texas
Watch: SEC Network
Jan. 9 – Florida
Jan. 12 – LSU
Jan. 15 – at Tennessee
Jan. 19 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 23 – Missouri
Jan. 26 – at Texas Tech
Jan. 29 – Georgia
Feb. 2 – at LSU
Feb. 5 – Vanderbilt
Feb. 9 – at South Carolina
Feb. 12 – at Missouri
Feb. 16 – Mississippi State
Feb. 20 – at Auburn
Feb. 23 – Texas A&M
Feb. 26 – at Kentucky
March 2 – Ole Miss
March 6 – at Vanderbilt
March 9 – Alabama
March 13-17 – SEC Tournament
There shouldn’t be surprises, but for an inexperienced team like the Razorbacks there will be a learning curve to playing on the road in the SEC, a league that has made strides in recent years in terms of quality and competitiveness.
Some will lead you to believe that after a dozen games Arkansas’ freshman – and sophomore – dominated squad isn’t young anymore. It would be great if that was true, but it is a load of hogwash, at least until they’ve experienced several league road trips.
The intensity of nonconference games even against quality teams does not approach what coach Mike Anderson’s young Hogs will encounter in league play, particularly on the road.
The approach is different when a game counts toward a title rather than just a one-time meeting. The scouting is different, the environment is different, and the stakes just mean more to borrow the SEC’s slogan.
It was helpful for the Razorbacks to open the season on a neutral floor against Texas, and for the Hogs to play a road game at Colorado State, but the intensity at Reed Arena will be amplified 100 percent.
It will take time for the Razorbacks to adjust, and while this Arkansas team is talented, its athletic gifts don’t stand head and shoulder over the Aggies in any way, shape, or form. The Razorbacks will have to play well to win this game. They may need their most consistent if not their best performance of the season.
The Hogs certainly can’t afford to get off to a slow start as they did in a 69-65 loss to Georgia Tech and a 73-70 victory over Texas State. An early game lull against the Aggies or any SEC road opponent might leave the Hogs with a hole they are unable to dig themselves from.
The Razorbacks do want to play at a frenetic pace to speed up opponents, but on the road, this young squad will have to be careful that they are still playing within themselves while they are playing fast.
Playing fast doesn’t mean taking bad risks and bad shots, which some young players can confuse with pushing an advantage. The offense needs to run inside-out, and the more quickly the Razorbacks establish 6-11 forward Daniel Gafford on the inside, the easier the game will flow for the Razorbacks.
Shooters like Isaiah Joe and even Mason Jones shouldn’t pass up in-rhythm open shots, but the best way for this Razorbacks squad to establish an offensive rhythm would be to get the ball in Gafford’s hands.
Players like Adrio Bailey need to understand their roles and play to them rather than against them. Bailey is an excellent athlete who needs to let his defensive and rebounding effort fed his offense. All open shots, particularly three-pointers, aren’t good ones, and there is no crime in passing the ball after gathering a rebound
Patience, discipline by Joe, Jones, and Bailey will not only pay off for them, but also for the Razorbacks. Every Hog has to cut and attack the basket. Forcing opponents to make a play at the rim and officials to make a call, usually pays dividends.
Sophomore guard Jalen Harris needs to set the tone early as a facilitator. As the point guard, he is a de facto leader of the team, and he doesn’t need to be hesitant about taking control of the game. He has to be aggressive about attacking the paint to open up Gafford and the Hogs’ perimeter players. Harris is a gifted assist man, and he has to be aggressive in setting the table for his teammates.
While offense is important, the best road teams are the ons whose foundation is defense. The great thing about Arkansas’ youngish squad is that they came in with a nose for defense. This Hog squad does get after teams, and Anderson has them switching defenses at a high level in spurts more quickly than I would have imagined.
However, the Hogs are struggling on the defensive glass. Arkansas’ not going to dominate teams with their size, but if they will body-up the man they are guarding, the Razorbacks should be able to effectively swarm rebound. This is an area where Bailey, Reggie Chaney, Jordan Phillips, and Gabe Osabuohien and every Razorback has to be effective. Gafford is good, but he can’t control the glass on his own.
Speaking of the big man, Gafford also must adjust his game a bit.
Gafford is an excellent rim protector, but he needs to be a bit more judicious in which shots he attempts to block. Many times he takes himself out of rebounding position when he goes for a block, and his blocks often go back to the opponent by going out of bounds or being swatted out to the perimeter.
Sometimes a player of his length can be more effective standing tall and altering shots while maintaining rebounding position than attempting to block every attack on the basket.
If the Razorbacks can show a bit of discipline from behind the three-point line on offense, and shore up their defensive rebounding efforts, they will have a much better chance of winning not only at College Station but also on any road test their SEC schedule has to offer.