Without seniors, all eyes on Gafford as Razorbacks prepare for Alabama

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2019
Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford celebrates following the Razorbacks' 74-73 win over Ole Miss on Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford celebrates following the Razorbacks' 74-73 win over Ole Miss on Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas basketball team will play its final home game against Alabama tonight in Walton Arena, but it's not Senior Night.

In order to have Senior Night a team must have at least one senior, which Arkansas doesn't.

"It's the 'Last Game Night,' " Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said. "How about that?"

Arkansas may not have a senior, but tonight could be the final home game for Daniel Gafford.

The 6-11 sophomore from El Dorado is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, according to several websites.

Among the projections for Gafford is being the No. 14 pick to the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA Draft Room); No. 19 to the Boston Celtics (NBADraft.net); No. 24 to the Oklahoma City Thunder (Draftsite.com); No. 25 to the Philadelphia 76ers (SI.com); and No. 29 to the Golden State Warriors (CBSSports.com).

Despite the NBA speculation, Gafford said he hasn't considered that tonight could be his last home game.

"No, I'm just coming to play," he said. "It's the last game in Bud for us this season, and I'm just coming to play like it's any other game."

So Gafford hasn't thought even a little bit about tonight being his final time to play in front of the Arkansas fans before moving on to the NBA?

"That's out of the picture right now," he said. "I don't think about that during the season."

Alabama Coach Avery Johnson -- who played in the NBA for 16 seasons and was a head coach for a combined seven seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets -- said Gafford might have been a top-10 draft pick had he left Arkansas after last season.

"Every game he's just getting better and better," Johnson said. "That's why I don't think Mike's going to have him that much longer."

Anderson said he's been too busy coaching his team to wonder whether tonight will be Gafford's final home game.

"I've been so in tune to just getting this team to play at a high level that it hadn't even dawned me," Anderson said. "When the season's over with, we'll sit down with Dan, like we did last year, and assess and see where we are and move forward accordingly."

Gafford is averaging 16.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots in 28.5 minutes. He's shooting an SEC-leading 66.1 percent from the field (197 of 298) -- including 81 dunks.

"I think I've played decent throughout the season," Gafford said. "I could've done better in the majority of the games we played. I didn't show up in most of the games we've lost, and you know that basically put us in a bad situation."

Gafford actually has put up big numbers in some of Arkansas' losses with 20 points and 12 rebounds against Texas; 14 and 8 against Georgia Tech; a career-high 32 and 7 against LSU at home; 16 and 5 at Texas Tech; 26 and 8 at Missouri; 23 and 13 against Texas A&M at home; and 14 and 8 at Kentucky.

"Obviously, he's like we all are wishing we had more in the win column," Anderson said. "But at the same time, I think Dan has stood up to the test, and he's going to continue to be big going down the stretch for us."

Anderson said it's been a challenging season for Gafford to be the centerpiece of a team relying heavily on sophomores and freshmen after being a complimentary piece as a freshman for a team led by senior All-SEC guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.

"Last year, Dan had some veteran guys around him, so he had a chance to come and go at this own speed," Anderson said. "But this year, he's in a different boat.

"He's got to come with it, and I think for the most part he's really improved. He's been the target of most teams on the scouting report, and I think he's responded in a positive way."

Gafford, a team captain along with junior forward Adrio Bailey, said his two seasons at Arkansas have been a maturation process.

"I've gained a lot," he said. "There have been situations where it may seem like I'm not coachable. I see that, and I have to fix that on my own.

"There's a level of maturing that you have to do when it comes to being in college because nobody's going to take your crap. You just have to come out and say, 'Yes sir, no sir.' You have to do everything the coaches say."

Gafford said there have been times he hasn't been receptive to instructions from the coaching staff.

"Like when it comes to them telling me something, I try to say something afterward and they think I'm rationalizing and stuff," he said. "It might just get to where my temper flares or something.

"I just have to continue to keep control of that because being a leader on this team, that's something I can't show to the young guys. I can't have them seeing that, 'Oh, Daniel is doing this with the coach, then maybe I can do this.'

"It's just a level of discipline you need to have when it comes to being a leader on the team, because the coaches are going to say what the coaches say, whether you're right or wrong."

Gafford said he's progressed in becoming more coachable.

"There've been times where I've said some things I never should have said after the coach said what he said," Gafford said. "I regret that because it takes me out of my game also."

Anderson said he's pleased with Gafford's attitude and how he takes to coaching.

"Oh, much, much better," Anderson said. "Dan has come so far it's unbelievable."

Gafford said he's improved in a lot of areas this season while increasing his weight from 233 to 242 pounds, but he'd like to get more confident in his jump shot.

"We've discussed that, Dan and I, about just stepping out there and taking some shots," Anderson said. "Obviously, he likes to get closer to the basket."

Gafford has hit 58.1 percent of his free throws (104 of 179), but Anderson said he has a nice shooting touch and has improved his ball-handling skills and defense.

"Dan's putting it on the floor and making great passes out of the double teams," Anderson said. "He doesn't foul as much. He's been walling up on people a lot more.

"He's just oozing with so much potential when you're talking about a big guy that can get up and down the floor."

And that's why tonight might be Gafford's last home game.

Sports on 03/09/2019

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