Analysis: Arkansas defense stout in November

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Arkansas University of Texas at Arlington Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, play in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Visit to see more photographs from the game.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas University of Texas at Arlington Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, play in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Visit to see more photographs from the game.

FAYETTEVILLE — Through the first month of the season, Mike Anderson’s young team is performing above expectations on the defensive end of the floor.

While the Razorbacks had an understandably average first five games offensively as each of the nine new faces jell and learn one another’s tendencies, their defense has been a big plus and a key factor in a 4-1 start. Anderson hoped for a defensive-minded team in the preseason, and so far he's got one.

Arkansas’ defense in five games allowed just .84 points per possession in November, good for the best first month of the season in terms of defensive efficiency dating back to the beginning of 2013-14 – Anderson’s third season.

The Razorbacks did not allow more than .95 PPP (Indiana) in any game this month and held two teams (UC Davis, UT-Arlington) under .80 PPP. Arkansas’ .84 PPP allowed is the program’s lowest mark in any month since holding six teams, including a Clemson team that featured future pro K.J. McDaniels, to 78 points per 100 possessions in December 2013.

So, how did it happened? Arkansas ranks in the top 15 nationally in four defensive categories: effective field goal percentage, turnover and block rate, and 2-point field goal defense. The Razorbacks sit among the top 10 teams in the country in percentage of shots blocked and opponent turnover percentage, so we'll start there.

Arkansas’ opponents turned the ball over 99 times in November, and each team finished with more turnovers than assists, leading to a 25.4 percent turnover rate. Texas came closest to a 1:1 assist-turnover ratio (10-14). Even Indiana and star freshman guard Romeo Langford coughed it up 18 times in a hostile Bud Walton Arena.

Granted, Arkansas did play three teams outside the KenPom top 215 in its first handful of games, but Texas and Indiana are both top-25 teams, per those rankings. Langford and fellow guard Aljami Durham combined for nine miscues, meaning Arkansas' guards were engaged in their first primetime home game. In the season opener, Texas forwards Dylan Osetkowski (6) and Jericho Sims teamed up for 10 turnovers. That's a credit to the Razorbacks' frontcourt – and Osetkowski's carelessness.

Daniel Gafford isn't the only Arkansas big capable of turning away or altering shots, although he does lead the team averaging two blocks per game. Reggie Chaney and Adrio Bailey have 10 blocks between them as well and Gabe Osabuohien has three, including a big rejection of Kerwin Roach at the rim in El Paso.

Osabuohien's willingness to give up his body around the rim and take charges is a trait he's carried with him since his freshman season. It's an invaluable characteristic for an Anderson defense and major reason Osabuohien sees the floor despite being sporadic with the ball in his hands at times and starting the season 4/16 from the floor. He took three charges in the win over UT-Arlington last Friday. Desi Sills and Isaiah Joe – two charges vs. UTA – are cut from the same cloth in a way, too.

But Arkansas' rim protection begins with Gafford, who ranks 57th nationally in block rate at 9.72 percent. Gafford's freshman figure of 11.5 was 14th out of more than 2,100 eligible players. This year, his number is likely to increase should he continue to stay out of foul trouble. He committed fewer than four fouls per 40 minutes this month, so perhaps he's learning to play with high hands and trusting his length and athleticism.

Arkansas' starting lineup of Jalen Harris, Joe, Mason Jones, Bailey and Gafford has played 140 possessions together through five games and really excelled defensively. The group has allowed .78 PPP thus far, turned opponents over on nearly 26 percent of their possessions and limited them to 39 percent on 2-point looks, a number that would rank fourth in the country.

Anderson's two most experienced players – Gafford and Bailey – are playing like leaders. The duo has been nothing short of fantastic together over nearly 200 defensive possessions:

But what happens when Bailey takes a seat and Anderson relies on a bench player to play alongside Gafford? Well, when Anderson has called on Chaney, things have gone swimmingly over a small sample size. Gafford and Chaney have the highest PPP differential (offensive PPP - defensive PPP) of any two-player combination with 50-plus possessions together.

Over 58 defensive trips, lineups featuring Gafford and Chaney have allowed just .62 PPP and held teams to 21.7 percent on 2-point field goal attempts. As well as Bailey played the first month of the season, we only seldom saw Gafford and Chaney share the floor, but it's certainly a pairing that will be explored more as the season goes on.

Harris, Joe and Jones have also had their moments defensively. Harris played passing lanes and with active hands against Texas and finished with three steals. He plays with an edge on that end that pays dividends more often than not. We've seen, too, that Joe isn't a player whose confidence is deterred by a poor shooting night. He made just 2 of 10 3-point attempts against Montana State and struggled with touch for the first time in his young college career, but came away with five steals in the win.

Jones is less likely than the other two guards to jump passes and kickstart the break, but his nose for defensive rebounding doesn't go unnoticed. He collected at least five in each of Arkansas' first three games, including one at the end of regulation against Indiana that ultimately sent him to the line for the win.

Looking ahead to Arkansas' seven-game December schedule, the Razorbacks face five teams outside the KenPom top 145 and two top-100 teams in Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech, both at home. Should Arkansas play as connected defensively as it did in the first month of the season, Anderson's team can gain even more confidence heading into its first run through the SEC.


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