24 predictions for Arkansas' 2017-18 basketball season

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Thursday, November 9, 2017
Arkansas guard Jaylen Barford (0) reaches to score ahead of Missouri Western forward Seth Bonifas Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas guard Jaylen Barford (0) reaches to score ahead of Missouri Western forward Seth Bonifas Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena.

— Arkansas opens its basketball season Friday against Samford. Here are 24 predictions about the upcoming year.

Daryl Macon will finish in the top five in the SEC in scoring

The senior guard averaged 13.4 points per game on a loaded offensive team last year and did so with incredible efficiency — his 62.6 true shooting percentage ranks second in the SEC among returning guards. Even if, likely when, his efficiency dips a bit with the expanded workload, he is going to rack up the points. Last season, he attempted less than 10 shots in 23 of 36 games. This year, with more of a scoring burden, he may need to put up 12, at the very least, a game. When he did that last year, he averaged 24.5, which brings me to my next prediction.

Macon will score 20 or more in at least 12 games

He’s going to go off for some big nights. He only had three of these games last year, but will have the ultimate green light. He doesn’t have a weakness in his offensive game. He can shoot it with range, shoot off the dribble, break down the defense, score off floaters and pull-ups, finish around the rim over size and create plays for teammates. That last part will be important, too, but Macon is going to get buckets.

Jaylen Barford will lead the team in assists and average at least 3.5 per game

Part of Barford’s NBA feedback focused on improving his decision-making and basketball IQ. Last year, his 11 field goal attempts per game led the team and he didn’t always do a good job taking advantage of the defensive attention he drew on his rampages into the lane. Walking the line between scorer and creator will be important for him and Macon, because those two can’t outscore teams by themselves. They know that. Barford only hit the four-assist mark five times last year. With the ball in his hands more and not as much playmaking around him, he may need to triple that this season.

Barford will shoot at least 33 percent from 3-point range

This was the other part of his game he was told to improve after shooting just 26.6 percent from range a year ago. His 75.2 free throw percentage is encouraging, but his perimeter shooting was dragged down by hitting just 4 of 30 jumpers in the final four seconds of the shot clock. Natural improvement along with helping get the offense into better shots quicker could lead to a sizable jump. Small sample size alert: Barford went 7 of 13 from deep in the Red-White game and two exhibition wins.

Anton Beard will finish third on the team in scoring

Sophomore guard C.J. Jones or freshman center Daniel Gafford are trendy picks, but Beard is going to have the ball in his hands a lot. Aside from Barford and Macon, he is the only other guard comfortable handling it. He’s at his best when he mixes in playmaking and will need to be more efficient than he has been to this point in his career, but he’s going to get up plenty of shots.

Jones will finish second on the team in made 3-pointers

Macon will take and make the most 3s, easily. Barford and Beard may challenge Jones for second-most attempts, but the sophomore is the best shooter of the trio. His ability to space the floor effectively and play off of others will be big. He shouldn’t be expected to replace all of Dusty Hannahs’ production, but he does need to replace some of the perimeter shooting void left by the new member of the Memphis Hustle. Jones is the kind of player who can get hot and produce offensive outbursts when he’s feeling it. Arkansas has to hope that’s often.

Arkansas will win 75 percent of games in which Dustin Thomas has at least three assists

Arkansas was 6-0 in these games last year. Thomas is a skilled passer with a good feel for the game — when he’s not trying to post up. Having him operate on the perimeter and be more of a playmaker this year will be important, because he should theoretically be able to take advantage of mismatches. The Razorbacks are a bit limited on primary ballhandlers, but Thomas and Trey Thompson’s passing ability can help make up for that a bit.

Thomas will start the majority of the games at the 4

This is with factoring in what could be a three-game suspension to start the season. Thomas was much better as a starter last year and keeping him in that spot allows Adrio Bailey to play the role of energizer bunny off the bench, using his athleticism and motor to inject life and tempo into the game.

One of Bailey and Daniel Gafford will shoot less than 50 percent from the foul line

Bailey continued to work on his shot diligently in the offseason and the form is smoother, without the hitch he had a year ago, but his shot is still a work in progress. He made just 6 of 19 at the line last year and was 2 of 7 in the Red-White game and first exhibition. Gafford was a poor foul shooter in high school, making just 53 percent as a senior. He began working to expand his range when he arrived on campus, but has a ways to go.

Darious Hall will start at least half of the games

This is a semi-bold prognostication because he’s competing with two other players (Beard and Jones) to share the third backcourt spot next to Barford and Macon. Hall won’t score like the other two, but brings a lot of other stuff to the table, namely defense, length and rebounding. Perhaps that fits well next to the two stars. He’s also a smart passer and should be a threat in transition. He could in time grow into the wing stopper role Manny Watkins embraced, but is much more physically gifted than Watkins. Anderson has been very complimentary of him.

Arkansas’ pace will be in the top 50 nationally

Last year, Arkansas ranked in the top 10 percent nationally in offensive pace, finishing 33rd with an average possession time of 15.7 seconds. That’s super fast, but could be even speedier this year because these Razorbacks are more athletic and are paced by a trio of senior guards who like to get out and run. That added athleticism should also help speed up opposing offenses after the Hogs ranked just 288th nationally in defensive pace last year. There should be an increase in turnovers and rushed possessions. Arkansas hasn’t ranked higher than 87th in overall tempo since the shot clock was lowered to 30 seconds in 2015. Look for that to change this year.

Khalil Garland won’t play this season

Hopefully this is wrong, for his sake, but Garland has been limited by a medical condition since he arrived on campus and took a physical at the beginning of the summer and there is no sign he will be cleared any time soon. The absence of the athletic, 6-5 Little Rock native takes away from some of the potential flexibility of the roster, but his health is comes first and his wellbeing is all that really matters.

Arkansas will finish in the bottom two of the SEC in 3-point attempts for a third straight year

The Razorbacks were near or at the bottom in the conference in attempts with Hannahs on the team the last two years. Without him, that probably won’t change. Barford, Macon, Beard and Jones may take close to 90 percent of the 3-point attempts. The underlying factor is the lack of a stretch big. When Anderson teams have had one, they’ve ranked near the top of the league in attempts.

Bigs will combine to make less than a jumper per game this season

Last year, Arkansas bigs not named Moses Kingsley shot 26 of 84 on jumpers, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. Thomas and Thompson are seniors who haven’t proven to be reliable or volume shooters to this point in their careers. Gafford and Bailey aren’t threats to stretch the defense for now, either.

The team’s defensive rating in SEC play will improve

This isn’t a cinch given that Kingsley and Watkins were Arkansas’ two most impactful defenders a year ago, but the Razorbacks better hope this happens. They gave up an ugly 107.8 points per 100 possessions in conference play a year ago, 11th in the league. The offense may not be as explosive, so getting more stops will be important, even if it’s only a modest improvement to, say, 104, which would make them an average defense. Reasons for hope: Gafford’s rim protection, Hall’s length at the 3, experience for returnees, Jones being more athletically capable than Hannahs.

Gafford will break the program’s freshman record for blocks

Hunter Mickelson holds the mark at 72 from when he averaged 2.25 in 2011-12 and ranked second in the SEC behind Anthony Davis. That’s a fairly high bar, but Gafford has the tools to be an elite rim protector and should get the playing time to best it. Mickelson averaged only 16.7 minutes per game that year, so Gafford should have the added advantage of playing significantly more.

Gafford is the starting center by the time SEC play rolls around

Anderson started Thompson in the exhibition games and may continue to do so during nonconference play. It makes sense on a few levels. He is a senior who’s put in the time with the program and his playmaking and experience are valuable. You know what you’re getting from him. Gafford, on the other hand, is a bit of a wild card and raw, evidenced by picking up a pair of fouls in the first two minutes he played in the exhibition opener. But his ceiling is high. Both will play plenty, even sharing the court together at times, but once Gafford has some experience, he is a good bet to get the starting nod.

Thompson will lead Arkansas in assist percentage

This isn’t exactly going out on a limb. He assisted on a team-best 17.8 percent of Arkansas’ makes when on the court last year. Macon and Barford should have better assist numbers this year, but will also have to shoulder a large scoring burden. Passing is Thompson’s best skill and his ability to operate from the high post will be valuable for a team without a surplus of ballhandlers.

Arlando Cook will play less than 200 total minutes

Bailey played 199 last year as the third 4 on the roster. There’s a good chance Cook is in that role this year thanks to his run-in with the law. He has a court date set for Jan. 3 and while he may work out a deal before it gets to that point, it’s a good bet he will miss at least most of the nonconference portion of the schedule. When he gets back, he’ll have Thomas and Bailey presumably ahead of him, Hall capable of playing the 4 in small-ball lineups and the likelihood Gafford and Thompson will play together some.

The Thompson-Gafford pairing will be a net negative against high-major opponents

Arkansas outscored opponents by a massive 17 points per 100 possessions last year when Thompson and Kingsley shared the floor. The pairing was a staple in the late-season push. So why would Gafford and Thompson not work well together? Spacing is one potential reason. Kingsley could shoot. Gafford can’t. Perhaps having Thompson operate exclusively from the high post is a workaround, but the two may suffocate the paint if that doesn’t happen. The defense will need to be strong with this group, which it wasn’t last year with Kingsley and Thompson, when teams scored 110.8 per 100 with them on the floor. A blistering 127.8 offensive rating was the difference. This year’s version may not be able to produce the same firepower, but the pairing is worth experimenting with, especially early when the Hogs could be short-handed in the frontcourt.

Arkansas will finish in the top 10 nationally in attendance for the first time since 2008

The Hogs have been in the top 12 for three straight years after slipping into the 20s from 2010 to 2014. Last season’s tournament run and an impressive home schedule that features Kentucky in SEC play and a nonconference slate with Minnesota, Oklahoma State and a slew of good mid-majors on it should draw sizable crowds. Last season, Arkansas sold an average of 15,247 tickets, 659 less than 10th-place North Carolina State. It shouldn’t take much of a bump up to crack the top 10.

Hogs enter SEC play with less than 10 wins

This would mean a record of 9-3 at best. Losing two games on the trip to the Phil Knight Invitational is very possible. Home games with Bucknell, Fresno State, Colorado State, Minnesota and CSU Bakersfield are legitimately tough matchups and then there’s a game at Houston in early December. Arkansas’ strength of schedule could be among the nation’s best, which would actually make a 9-3 mark a pretty impressive accomplishment.

They win at most 10 SEC games

The SEC is deeper this year. Five teams have been ranked in at least one preseason Top 25, with Kentucky, Florida and A&M in the preseason AP poll and Alabama positioned as the first team receiving votes. Obviously the news that Crimson Tide point guard Collin Sexton is not eligible at least to start the season could affect the landscape drastically, but league play will likely be a bloodbath regardless. Protecting the home court will be important and avoiding slip-ups against the bottom three or four teams will be a must. An unexpected loss or two could be the difference between winning 10 and finishing fourth and winning eight and finishing seventh. Arkansas will probably be in the 8 to 11-win range, so a 9 or 10-win conference season seems fair.

Arkansas makes a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament

KenPom projects the SEC as the third-best conference in the nation entering the season. Last year, the Big Ten and Big East tied for the second-most tournament bids with seven apiece. The Razorbacks could be this year’s Vanderbilt, a team that played a ridiculously tough schedule and didn’t have a glistening record, but was a good team and made the tourney. Arkansas should finish in the top seven in the conference. I picked them sixth, which is where they finished in the preseason media poll. They’ve outperformed that four years in a row. A fifth straight year exceeding outside expectations and a brutal schedule would punch the ticket.

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