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.
Marching in March: Gafford playing with heightened sense of urgency
Arkansas center Daniel Gafford walks to the bench during a game against Alabama on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Some may have been a bit surprised by Daniel Gafford's performance against Alabama on Saturday to close out the regular season, but not Desi Sills.
To the freshman who has started and averaged nearly 10 points in the Razorbacks' last five games, that was just Gafford being Gafford. The two most notably linked up in the second half for an alley oop that put the Razorbacks up 11 and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
"He is the head honcho of this team, and we’re following his lead," Sills said. "That’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s been doing that in practice, and he’s taking it to the game. That’s what we need him to do."
After scoring a team-high 20 points at Vanderbilt last Wednesday and following that outing with 29 points and 16 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, Gafford was named Co-SEC Player of the Week on Monday, sharing the honor with South Carolina forward Chris Silva.
During the Razorbacks' second losing streak of at least four games in league play, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson called upon his players to come out with a heightened sense of urgency down the stretch, and it appears Gafford received the message loud of clear. Over the course of Arkansas' current three-game winning streak, he's averaging 22 points on 26-of-37 from the floor and 7.3 rebounds.
Anderson added that Gafford's effort of late has been unbelievable.
"I think he’s playing at that level because he’s been a target and people have been coming after him. Now I think he’s responded the right way," Anderson said Monday. "But I think we’re helping him because now our bench is starting to play. If you watch us play, he’s getting some rest now. So he’s getting those last six, seven, eight minutes, whatever it is, and finishing the game off strong."
Gafford finished last March averaging 11 points and six rebounds in Arkansas' five games. He starred and scored 16 points in wins at Missouri to close the regular season and in an SEC Tournament win over Florida, but totaled just 15 points and 10 rebounds in the final two games versus Tennessee and Butler.
Adrio Bailey, who's been moved to a bench role since the Razorbacks' loss at Auburn, said Gafford understands this March is his time to shine and feels a certain responsibility to lead Arkansas on a postseason run.
"Dan knows what’s at stake," he said. "March means it's basketball fever. That’s the time of the year (to play your best basketball), so not only Dan, but every player has turned it up a little bit because we know what’s at stake.
"We’re not trying to go home. We’re trying to go as far as we can."
Having been center stage in the season's final month one year ago, Gafford looks to be learning from and building on that experience. Over the last three games, Arkansas has outscored its opponents by 60 points (173-113) with Gafford on the floor. Lineups featuring him in that span have held teams to .80 points per possession over his 141 defensive possessions as well.
He's also protected the rim at a high level, blocking eight shots during the winning streak - his third-best total in any three-game span this season.
"When you look at the big picture and the things that Dan has done, the other night was one of those nights when he took it to another level scoring-wise, defensive-wise, rebounding the basketball," Anderson said. "You think of last year and the role he was in, it was totally different than this year and I thought he stepped up to the plate.
"He’s been on the top of everybody’s scouting report. ... Just think, two years ago he was in high school and now he’s being considered one of the better players not only in the SEC but in the country, and I think his best basketball continues to be in front of him."
Gafford is taking a "you just wait and see" approach into Thursday's matchup with Florida in the SEC Tournament. He said as much Saturday when asked about the teams' second meeting this season. He's also worried about little other than advancing the Razorbacks in Nashville.
After his monster game Saturday - Gafford became the third player to finish with 29-plus points, 15-plus rebounds, two assists and two blocks in a game in 2018-19 - he was less than concerned with the impression he made in what was potentially his best - and final - game in Bud Walton Arena.
"I’m just worried about the wins that we get," he said.
Perhaps the metaphorical chip on his shoulder stems from his nine-point performance against the Gators in January. Regardless, Florida coach Mike White expects Gafford's best shot this week.
"He's made a big jump over the course of this season," White said. "I think he’s a really tough kid. He’s always the focal point of every scouting report against those guys. I feel like we did a good job and he had 9 points and 12 rebounds. That’s how good the guy is.
"You always have to be cognizant of where he is on the court."
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