Arkansas basketball preview:

Anderson says 18-19 team most inexperienced he’s coached

By: Bob Holt
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson speaks to guard Desi Sills against Southwest Baptist Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, during the second half of their exhibition game in Bud Walton Arena. Visit nwadg.com/photos to see more photographs from the game.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson speaks to guard Desi Sills against Southwest Baptist Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, during the second half of their exhibition game in Bud Walton Arena. Visit nwadg.com/photos to see more photographs from the game.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson had six seniors on his team last season. Now the Razorbacks don’t have one.

Anderson, going into his eighth season at Arkansas and 17th as a college head coach, said he’s never had such an inexperienced team.

The Razorbacks’ only returning scholarship players are sophomore forward Daniel Gafford — a preseason All-SEC first-team pick — along with junior forward Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien.

The team’s only scholarship guard who has played on the NCAA Division I level is sophomore Jalen Harris, who redshirted last season after transferring from New Mexico.

Harris, who hit 7 of 27 3-pointers for the Lobos as a true freshman during the 2016-17 season, and junior walk-on Jonathan Holmes, who hit 2 of 6 3-pointers last season, are the only Razorbacks who have hit a basket from beyond the arc in a Division I game.

The Razorbacks have nine newcomers, including Harris.

“It’s like having a bunch of little piglets,” Anderson said. “Little baby pigs.

“But you continue to feed them, and they continue to grow. All of a sudden they become a Hog, and some of them become true Razorbacks. One thing we know about a Razorback is, he’ll bite you.

“That’s going to be our challenge, to get our guys to grow significantly throughout the year.”

The loss of eight players from last season’s 23-12 NCAA Tournament team — including All-SEC guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford — mean the Razorbacks return just 20.4 percent of their scoring, 27.1 percent of their rebounding and 9.8 percent of their assists.

“You look at our team this year, there’s a lot of unknowns,” Anderson said. “But at the same time I’m excited about the guys that are returning.

“Those guys have got to step up in a big fashion and be leaders for the young guys that are coming on board.”

Along with Harris, the new guards are freshmen Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Keyshawn Embery-Simpson, Jordan Phillips and sophomore Mason Jones, a junior college transfer.

The new forwards include Reggie Chaney, Ethan Henderson and Ibby Ali.

Redshirt freshman guard Khalil Garland still hasn’t been cleared to play because of undisclosed medical condition.

“I’ve seen that we’ve got a lot of dogs this year,” Gafford said, complimenting the newcomers on their aggressiveness. “They’re going to come, and they’re going to impress.

“They’re going to come in with the same mindset I had last year. They’re going to be ready to play.”

Gafford said he was impressed during the summer that the newcomers spent so much extra time working in the gym at night.

“They all have that mentality to work, and they all have the mentality to get better,” he said. “We’re just going to see what happens when the season gets here.”

Gafford — who averaged 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots in 22.6 minutes last season — gives Arkansas an elite big man to build around, but he can’t be a one-man team if the Razorbacks are to exceed expectations after being picked to finish 10th in the SEC in a preseason media poll.

“Arkansas has a lot of unknowns, so the Razorbacks get picked down in the poll,” said ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, a former Arkansas player who also was the Razorbacks’ women’s coach. “What we know about Arkansas is they have a phenomenal talent in Gafford, but we don’t know yet what those other pieces are going to look like.

“Arkansas can easily slide up in this league because of how good Gafford is. This could be a team that wins a ton of games because they have a superstar talent in Gafford and a bunch of pieces around him that are going to play a style that allows them to score a lot off their defense.”

Anderson said the Razorbacks have more players with length — especially on the perimeter — to help them extend their defense more than his teams have in recent seasons.

“What we can do defensively is something that excites me about this team,” Anderson said. “The versatility, the length, the athletic ability.”

Bailey averaged 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.2 minutes last season when he played in 31 games, including 16 starts.

“I’ve been really impressed with his leadership mindset,” Anderson said. “If anything goes astray, he says, ‘Coach, I got it.’ And I love that.

“He’s been a part of two NCAA Tournament teams, and that experience has got to kick in. He’s got to take his play to another level. That’s been the challenge for him ever since our season was over.”

Harris is a true point guard with a pass-first mentality the Razorbacks have lacked in recent seasons.

“I think Jalen Harris is going to be really important for us,” Anderson said. “He had a chance to sit out and get some seasoning going against Barford and Macon every single day.

“And guess what? He had his time, he had his moments, where he really shined.”

Harris has the speed and quickness to push the ball and play at the pace Anderson wants, and he’s also a strong on-the-ball defender.

“I think he’s got a chance to be a guy that can create a lot of things for not only for himself, but other people as well,” Anderson said.

Among the newcomers, Harris, Joe, Sills, Mason and Chaney look ready to be solid contributors, but Anderson said it’s difficult to know what to expect early in the season as players progress at their own pace.

“There’s talent, no question about that,” Anderson said. “But let’s see if we can get these guys all on the same page. I think that’s going to be a big key.

“They came in as a heralded recruiting class. We’ll see once the season starts how they do. But I like what we have.”

Anderson said making the NCAA Tournament remains the expectation even for a team with so many newcomers and unknowns.

“I just think every year, that’s your goal,” he said. ‘That should be everybody’s goal.

“There’s nothing that’s changed here at Arkansas. But obviously there’s work to be done.”

Dykes said the strength of the SEC — along with Arkansas’ nonconference schedule that includes games against Texas, Indiana, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky — should help the Razorbacks’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

“The number of quality wins you’re going to be able to get in the SEC will be more than any other league,” Dykes said. “The SEC is stacked along with the ACC.

“If Arkansas can win two or three of those big nonconference games and then get to .500 in the SEC, Mike Anderson is in the NCAA Tournament again.”

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