Razorbacks in search of confidence entering Texas A&M rematch

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Friday, February 22, 2019
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke, right, pressures Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke, right, pressures Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

FAYETTEVILLE — Having dropped four consecutive games in SEC play for the second time this season, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said confidence may play the biggest role in Saturday's rematch against Texas A&M.

The Aggies, who lost seven of their next nine games after falling to the Razorbacks to open conference play on Jan. 5, are suddenly playing some of their best basketball as they enter Bud Walton Arena winners of three of their last four games.

Anderson mentioned Aggies guard Wendell Mitchell - 18 points per game in last six - by name in previewing the game, explaining that the junior is scoring the ball well in February and playing with a spark many on Arkansas' roster are without.

After being blown away by hot-shooting Auburn on Wednesday, Anderson could be heading toward inserting new life into Arkansas' lineup. He even employed the little-used Sills/Embery-Simpson/Joe/Osabuohien/Gafford lineup to open the second half against the Tigers.

The Razorbacks have used only two starting lineups all season, but that could change this weekend.

"There’s a possibility of a shakeup," Anderson said Friday. "There is a possibility of that. I thought we had a pretty productive practice yesterday and those (bench) guys were in fold. ... You want to put guys out there that are going to give you the things that you need, and we need defense. We need some great defense, and we need to get the tempo up and down the floor. We’ve got to get guys doing a better job of helping our scorers get open.

"So now, maybe, you’ve got to get some energy out there on the floor - get some new blood, so to speak."

The Razorbacks are in the midst of their roughest defensive stretch of the season following three fairly encouraging performances against Missouri and Georgia at home, and Texas Tech. Arkansas held those teams to .92 points per possession, but in February, Anderson's club is allowing 1.10 PPP and seeing opponents shoot better than 44 percent from 3-point range over the last five games.

South Carolina and Auburn combined to hit 56 percent of their 3-point attempts. As of Friday, Arkansas is 13th in SEC-only games defending the 3 at 37 percent, according to KenPom.

"Obviously, I’ve got to do a better job of getting them over the hump, and that falls on me," Anderson said. "I can get them to the finish line, but now we've got to make plays to get the over the hump and that's what we haven’t done. I still don’t think we’ve played our best basketball. I really don’t.

"But, it’s got to start with our defense. I think that’s got to be the trigger. Our defense is what is going to enable us to do the things we want to do."

Then there's Arkansas' lack of firepower offensively. The Razorbacks also rank 13th in the SEC in 3-point shooting at 30.9 percent - ahead of only Georgia. Wednesday's 4-of-26 effort beyond the arc was Arkansas' second-worst night of the season in terms of percentage and the third time on its current losing streak in which it made six or fewer 3s.

Isaiah Joe knocked down all four of Arkansas' 3-pointers at Auburn while the rest of the team finished 0-of-12. Mason Jones, coming off his second 30-point game in conference play, made just 1 of 9 shots and missed all six triple tries. It marked the fifth time this season Jones followed a 15-plus point game with six or less points.

Jones was one of three regular starters who were benched to begin the second half on Wednesday. And following the game, Jones tweeted "Feel unappreciated" then deleted the post shortly after.

In talking with Jones, Anderson has stressed the fact he can still impact a game even when his shot isn't falling. His assist rate (17.9 percent) is top 20 in the SEC and he's the team's leading rebounder in league play outside of Gafford.

"First-year player, that's what you call it. I think that's what it is," Anderson said of Jones' ups and downs. "People are scouting him and getting after him a little bit, and that's probably what takes place with our team when you talk about inconsistency.

"Night in and night out you want to make sure that certain guys are bringing something to the table, and the nights we're consistent I think that's when we play some of our better basketball. He's had some open looks and just didn't knock them down."

Anderson is hopeful returning home to a Saturday night crowd can lift his club's energy level and rejuvenate some of its lost confidence.

"The one thing I always think our guys are going to do is they’re going to fight," he added. "Confidence is the biggest thing that we’ve got to come out and play with."

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