Mike Anderson, Hogs stockpiling versatile athletes

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson pounds his fist during the second half against North Carolina Sunday March 19, 2017 during the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Razorbacks 72-65 eliminating them from the tournament.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson pounds his fist during the second half against North Carolina Sunday March 19, 2017 during the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Razorbacks 72-65 eliminating them from the tournament.

— Seton Hall’s Desi Rodriguez is listed at 6-foot-6. North Carolina’s Justin Jackson is 6-8.

Then-Arkansas senior Manny Watkins held the high-scoring duo to a combined 9 of 31 shooting in the NCAA Tournament despite only being 6-3.

Watkins was the Razorbacks’ perimeter defensive ace last season, his strength, defensive instincts and want-to allowing him to excel in matchups with scoring wings despite often giving up several inches.

He was the Razorbacks’ best option for matchups like Rodriguez or Jackson, which is somewhat of an indictment on roster construction.

That isn’t news to Mike Anderson and his staff. As a result, adding versatile wings and combo forwards with the ability to guard different positions has been a focal point of recruiting, including Wednesday, when the Hogs filled the scholarship vacated by Brachen Hazen’s transfer with 6-8, 219-pound forward Gabe Osabuohien, a Toronto native who played at Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock last year.

Last season, Arkansas had guards who stood 6-3 or shorter and forwards who were 6-8 or taller and operated almost exclusively as big men without showing many perimeter skills. The Hogs have, for the most part, lacked rangy wing options the last 2 years.

It’s no coincidence they have produced 2 of the 3 worst defenses in Mike Anderson’s 15 years as a head coach, from a statistical standpoint.

Last season, Arkansas had the worst defense of any team he has coached, allowing an adjusted 99.8 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. By itself, that’s a solid number and ranked just outside the top 75 nationally. But it was propped up by nonconference foes. The number ballooned to an ugly 107.8 in SEC play, 11th out of 14 conference teams.

Up-tempo pressure basketball has been synonymous with Anderson throughout his coaching career, but not the last 2 years when, for the first time in his career, both Arkansas teams forced turnovers on less than one-fifth of their opponents’ possessions. Last year, the turnover rate for opposing teams dipped to 18.5 overall and just 17.6 in conference play.

Simply put, the Hogs didn’t have the kind of players needed to play the way they wanted, the long, athletic, defensive-oriented players who could guard full-court and play in passing lanes. But Anderson and his staff have made it a point to address that through recruiting, targeting versatile, athletic wings and combo forwards, players who should thrive in a fast, pressure-oriented system.

Guards and wings are largely interchangeable on offense for Arkansas. Some players are better primary ballhandlers than others and handle more of that burden, but Anderson gives his players the freedom to play on that end, for the most part.

Specifying positions becomes much more applicable to the defense and who players are guarding 1 through 5. In that sense, the roster will look a lot more well-rounded next year.

Sophomore guard C.J. Jones is 6-5 and one of the best athletes and shooters on the team. Defense and strength were issues for him as a freshman, but his frame and physical ability give him defensive potential as he matures. He should be able to guard 2s and 3s.

Incoming freshman Khalil Garland is also 6-5 and a solid athlete. He and Jones give the Razorbacks more length in the backcourt, something they’ve been missing. He may be able to guard 1 through 3.

Sophomore forward Adrio Bailey is an interesting player, because, at 6-6, he is an undersized 4, but able to survive (and even thrive, hello, North Carolina) thanks to his length and athleticism. He is working to expand his game and grow his ability to function on the perimeter as a wing this offseason, a process which, if it is at least somewhat successful, makes him even more valuable. He should be able to guard 3s and 4s.

Incoming freshman Darious Hall is 6-6 and 210 pounds with a monstrous 7-foot wingspan and a 37-inch vertical. He has the ability to play on the wing on offense and his unique physical profile makes him highly intriguing on the defensive end. Off the bat, he should be able to hold his own against 3s and 4s. Over time, his quickness and athleticism could allow him to hang with guards, while his wingspan and standing reach mean he could, with added strength, play as a small-ball 5. Having a player who could potentially switch 1 through 5 in time is immensely valuable.

Osabuohien is an under-the-radar recruit without any big offers. Given the choice, any coach would take a polished McDonald's All-American, but he is the type of prospect Anderson has had his share of success mining at Arkansas. Junior college forward Coty Clarke committed to Arkansas in May of 2012 and wound up becoming a vital piece the next 2 years. Jones committed in February last year as the No. 362 ranked player in the nation by one service and has one of the highest ceilings of any player on the roster.

Osabuohien is ranked the No. 336 player in the class of 2017 by the same service. His high school coach indicated his defensive ability is ahead of his offensive game at this stage, but at 6-8 with a reported 7-1 wingspan and good athleticism, he has physical tools for the staff to mold. Perhaps in time he could guard 3 through 5.

A roster lacking true wings is now stocked with versatile, switchy athletes who fit the system and can thrive in the type of frenetic, full-court environment Anderson wants his team to play in.

Arkansas struggled when it tried to switch last year, but Anderson is crafting a roster that could conceivably play lineups with the ability to switch across the board in the future. It’s much harder to beat a defense with the ability to switch everything and not lose a lot matchup-wise.

Anderson is placing a recruiting emphasis on the kind of players who make that possible. Watkins deserves a ton of credit for getting the better of Rodriguez and Jackson in March, but in the future, players like them will have to try to pick on guys their own size when playing the Hogs.

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