Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Anderson encouraged by recent rise in defensive intensity
Image from Arkansas 72-60 win over Missouri Wednesday Jan. 23, 2019 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Asked if he remains confident his young team can still make a run in conference play, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson did not hesitate in his response.
"Without a doubt," he said Monday in previewing Georgia, who beat Texas 98-88 in Athens on Saturday as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and travels to Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday. "I've been more encouraged just from the last couple of games."
The last couple of games defensively for Arkansas had to have been a sight for sore eyes for Anderson, who watched his team allow 1.22 points per possession over a three-game span against LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Last week, the Razorbacks held Missouri and then-No. 14 Texas Tech to .93 PPP over 136 defensive possessions - their best multi-game stretch since limiting Texas A&M and Florida to .91 PPP.
The difference has been Arkansas' aggressive, pressure-oriented defense, which resulted in 45 turnovers in two games last week. Missouri turned in its second-worst game of the season in terms of turnover rate (33.6 percent) and Texas Tech's (31.0) was its worst since facing Duke in Madison Square Garden in late December.
Arkansas forced a Red Raiders turnover on 15 of 34 first-half possessions, and the Razorbacks turned those miscues into 17 points and a 33-30 lead at halftime. Anderson added that his guys are starting "to get it," and that communication has been key.
"We're connected. I think the biggest take of it is we're talking on defense," Anderson said. "When you're playing the style of basketball we're playing, it just don't happen overnight. It takes time, but once you get it, it's a thing of beauty. Now I think that's what we're starting to see: guys starting to talk and figure it out and building a wall right there at the basket.
"We're adjusting as the game goes on."
Anderson's lineup that featured Reggie Chaney alongside Jalen Harris, Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Daniel Gafford paid dividends and changed the game in the win against Missouri. That group forced the Tigers into seven turnovers over a 21-possession span and outscored Missouri 30-16. Lineups involving Chaney turned Missouri over 15 times over 42 possessions.
The Tigers' 24 turnovers led to 27 valuable points for the Razorbacks, who had struggled offensively in league play leading into the game, scoring fewer than 98 points per 100 possessions over their previous four.
Then, on Saturday, Razorbacks forwards not named Chaney and Gafford helped provide the three-point halftime lead. As Gafford sat the final 10-plus minutes of the first half, Gabe Osabuohien and Adrio Bailey played admirably on the defensive end. Along with Joe, Harris and Keyshawn Embery-Simpson, they held Texas Tech to .67 PPP over nine possessions.
What Anderson liked most about that sequence was Arkansas regained the lead with its star on the bench and those in the lineup stifled the Red Raiders for the most part. Texas Tech was 2/3 from 3-point range but committed six turnovers in that span.
"I'm seeing it in practice and now I'm seeing it in games and I think as we get more guys coming off that bench and giving us really, really positive minutes" it will be a positive, Anderson said.
Now, with a six-game stretch that included five teams inside the KenPom top 40 behind it, Arkansas has a chance to regain its footing in SEC play. As of Monday, four of the Razorbacks' next five games are against teams outside the KenPom top 85 - Georgia (97), at LSU (24), Vanderbilt (113), at South Carolina (102), at Missouri (89).
Aside from LSU, the other four opponents each rank in the bottom half of the conference in offensive efficiency, which could favor Arkansas should its defense mirror its last two outings.
Another figure that favors Arkansas on Tuesday: Georgia has a -5.3 turnover margin this season and averages nearly 17 turnovers per game.
"We're not strong enough with the ball," Georgia coach Tom Crean said after the win over Texas. "We try to make passes in too tight of a window, right, and we can't. We're not Matt Ryan or Peyton Manning - we're not trying to make those passes. We've got to make the simple play."
The Bulldogs' 23 percent turnover rate is highest of any team in a Power 5 conference.
"We know defense turns to offense, so that’s mainly what we’ve been focused on in practice, getting a lot of stops, trying to get our hands on balls," Harris said Monday. "The more deflections we get, we know it’s a better chance for us getting a loose ball and making defense into easy offense."
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