Welcome to Going Deep with Nate Olson
Hogs Have Something to Prove in NCAA Tournament
What to do Pat Bradley and Charles Barkley have in common?
No, this is not a bad joke. Seriously. Give up?
Both of them have picked Arkansas to advance to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. Actually, Bradley has the Hogs in the Final 4.
Bradley, the co-host of The Zone on 103.7 the Buzz and former Hogs star guard, may be just a bit biased.
Barkley? I’m not sure what the Round Mound of Rebound sees in picking Arkansas over Butler, Purdue and then Texas Tech. Not that is that far-fetched with Arkansas’ combination of depth and firepower, but I was surprised he bought in.
Bradley and Barkley may be in the minority among experts, though. Honestly, outside of the Natural State not many are expecting much from Mike Anderson’s No. 7-seeded team in its game with No. 10 Butler this afternoon at Detroit.
Las Vegas odds makers picked every lower tournament seed as a favorite, except Arkansas. The Washington Post calculated the odds of every team in the field advancing. According The Post, the Hogs have a 43 percent chance of beating Butler, a 14 percent chance of advancing to the Sweet 16, a 4 percent chance of going to the Elite 8 and a 1 percent chance of making the Final 4. Barkley and Bradley, are you paying attention? You can guess what the predicted odds are for advancing and winning the national championship. Goose egg.
I’m not sure if Anderson is pointing out the negativity. If he has gotten wind of it, it’s music to his ears. During Arkansas’ run in the 1990s, Anderson’s former boss and mentor, Nolan Richardson, tried to convince us the Hogs didn’t get the respect they deserved. Even when they played Duke in the 1994 National Championship game and again in 1995 as the defending champions.
It was a drum, Richardson banged loudly, and he preached the “us against the world mentality” to his team. It worked. He seemed to relish the underdog role. That has most likely rubbed off on Anderson. Maybe the disrespect has reached a point now that it’s bulletin board material.
No one has to manufacture disrespect for this team. It’s real. It’s easy to see the other 7 seeds are more highly thought of, and the state of Indiana has been planning for a Purdue/Butler matchup since about a minute after the brackets were unveiled Sunday, in the worst selection show I have seen I might add.
I’m not sure why there is a consensus of a Hogs’ early exit. They have many of the ingredients pundits point to for deep tournament runs. Senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford are one of the better duos in the tournament. Guard play has long been emphasized as a reason to pick a team to win big in March. When you add the steady Anton Beard to the mix, I’m not sure anyone compares to their experience and ability to attack against pressure.
Then there’s Daniel Gafford. The freshman big man has impressed those of us inside these borders all season with his dunk total that exceeds several team totals in the SEC. His reputation has spread nationally and draft experts are calling for him to be a high first-round pick. I think the tournament will officially be Gafford’s coming out party. He will give the undersized Bulldogs fits today and against Purdue on Sunday (Yeah, I said it) will use his athleticism to baffle 7-foot-2, 292-pound Boilermaker center Isaac Haas. Haas (14.5 ppg, 5 rpg) enters the tournament with big-time hype. I doubt he’s seen too many players with as much explosion as Gafford, though. The senior Haas holds the experience advantage and knows how to play in the tournament. It’s all new for the freshman. But if the Hogs beat Butler, he should be settled in.
And despite what some haters say, having Anderson at the helm should be comforting. He’s orchestrated deep tournament runs at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri. I know he hasn’t done that yet at Arkansas, but Butler’s LaVall Jordan hasn’t even coached a tournament game. Advantage Anderson. Yeah, I hear you message board haters snickering in your mothers’ basements. Get over it.
As we approach tip, I don’t know if I am in the Barkley and Bradley camp (What an entourage that would be), but I am not writing the Hogs off, either. Before the brackets were even released, I called Sweet 16. This team and program is due. The deep, veteran squad has been very good at times and has a trio of players that any coach in the country would love to have. Arkansas has to avoid inconsistency, and if they have a chance to put teams away, they need to step on their throat. That has been a weakness this season. Still, they are ready to overcome that and make the deepest Hogs run since 1996 and make Bradley and Barkley look like geniuses. Well, kind of.
Anderson’s Decision Hurts Thomas more than Hogs
There are a couple of players on the Arkansas basketball roster Coach Mike Anderson can’t afford to lose. Dustin Thomas isn’t one of those players. So, when news hit that the 6-foot-8 senior forward was booted from the team for “a violation of team rules,” it wasn’t good, it wasn’t earth-shattering either.
Thomas played in 26 games and started 17 while averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds per contest. Thomas’ best assets were his height and willingness to rebound and set screens. He was rarely a threat to score but a welcome presence in the paint on a team that has been plagued by rebounding issues at times. That was his role, and he did it OK. Not extraordinary but good enough.
Still, he’s not Darryl Macon, Jaylen Barford or Daniel Gafford. Losing the production those three offer would be catastrophic and no one on the roster can replace the punch. With Thomas’ absence reserve big man sophomore Adrio Bailey and senior Arlando Cook, who was suspended the first semester are next up. Freshman Darious Hall and Gabe Osabuohien can also help inside.
Anderson may have to cobble a rotation together, but if he can just get one or two of those players to break out in the postseason, Arkansas may even enjoy an upgrade. If they all four can just play steady, there shouldn’t be much of a drop off. They must box out and rebound. Particularly in losses to Kentucky and Missouri, the Hogs were victimized on the boards, and it was one of the major differences in the game.
The Hogs still have a puncher’s chance of winning the SEC Tournament, and if they can stay out of the 8/9 game, I like their chances of going to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament with the Macon and Barford leading the way. You know what they say about dynamic guard play in the tournament. There aren’t many programs in the country that have a backcourt duo and Gafford is a rising star in the paint.
Who this really hurts is Thomas. Think about being on the verge of earning a college a degree, and then getting kicked out of school. The best part of Thomas’ college basketball experience was nigh, and it was over before it began. It will hurt to see his former teammates make noise in the postseason and think what might have been. It will hurt even worse if his replacements struggle to fill his spot, and his loss costs them wins.
Anderson gave Thomas a big chance when he was arrested for passing a small amount of counterfeit bills around Fayetteville in 2015. This season began with Thomas suspended for an undisclosed reason, and he didn’t play in two other games which were deemed Anderson’s decision. Possibly more punishment.
It appears Thomas was a constant thorn in Anderson’s side, even though he made the first-year SEC honor roll in 2015-16. Was the citation he received by Fayetteville police Feb. 9 for marijuana possession the final straw?
Anton Beard learned his lesson. He was involved in the same counterfeit bill scheme, and suspended for an entire first semester. I think that time away stunted his growth and prevented him from blossoming into the player he could have been, but as far as we know he hasn’t given Anderson any more trouble.
That’s why Beard is in St. Louis getting ready for the SEC Tournament and Thomas is at home. Anderson did the right thing. It sends a clear message to his team that even a part-time starter at the end of his senior season isn’t immune to swift punishment. And fortunately for Anderson, Thomas is a loss his team can cope with.
Arkansas has only lost one home game this year. If they win the final two, the Hogs’ NCAA Tournament seeding will receive a major boost.
After a thrashing of No. 21 Texas A&M last Saturday at Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas welcomes Kentucky Tuesday night. This Wildcats team isn’t typical of John Calipari clubs. It isn’t ranked and is only 7-7 in the SEC. Still, the program holds enough cache that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects UK as a No. 6 seed. Contrast that with Arkansas’ No. 10 seed by Lunardi, and you see how much respect the ‘Cats get.
Even in a down year, a win over Kentucky means something to the selection committee.
That’s why things set up very well for the Hogs. After four straight wins and another against Kentucky, that will only strengthen the Hogs’ resume. After playing in the dreaded 8/9 NCAA Tournament game the past two appearances Mike Anderson would like to avoid that this time.
A UK win is a step closer to dodging a second-round matchup with a No. 1 seed. Then, the following three games are very winnable against teams who are tourney locks. The home finale against Auburn next Tuesday adds another opportunity at a marquee win, which are so very important in determining seeding.
If Arkansas wins out, they could move up to a No. 5 seed with a hot regular-season finish and a good SEC Tournament showing. The committee loves hot teams.
The way Arkansas is playing at home and the roll that they are on, makes me confident they will win tomorrow night and next Tuesday. The performances UA turns in at Tuscaloosa and Columbia may be the barometer of how good this team is and can be. If Arkansas wins both of those games it would assure the Hogs are higher seeds than the Tigers and Crimson Tide. That is probably at least six.
Anderson certainly isn’t going to look past Kentucky, though. UK has lost four of its past five games during a tough stretch against upper echelon SEC teams including Tennessee and Auburn, but is coming off an 81-71 home win against Alabama Saturday.
Calipari’s top six scorers are freshmen with two sophomores behind them. Kentucky is always very young with its philosophy of recruiting one-and-done freshmen. This team continues the trend but hasn’t blossomed as early as some past teams. Big man Kevin Knox paces Kentucky with 15.1 points and 5 rebounds per game in 32 minutes. Six-foot-six guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averages 32.3 minutes per game and fills up the stat book with averages of 12.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Two other ‘Cats average double-figures in scoring, so they are pretty balanced.
Lack of depth and experience should hurt them Tuesday. Bud Walton Arena promises to be hostile, and if Arkansas cranks up its pressure defense, Kentucky’s rookies may wilt. Arkansas senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are playing as well as any duo in the country. Their experience should be an even bigger factor in this game than most. Hogs freshman big man Daniel Gafford is also playing well. In fact, the entire Arkansas team is playing well and as cohesively as they have in months.
Arkansas is peaking at the time. The home stretch of the regular season begins against one of the blue bloods. A win will leave Arkansas on a path to a red-hot finish and increased NCAA Tournament stock.
Unheralded UA Underclassmen Have Enough Talent to Aid in Rebuilding Process
Chad Morris’ Arkansas debut recruiting class, which included a majority of underclassmen, didn’t turn many heads. Depending on the recruiting service, it ranked somewhere in the 50s or 60s. How much stock can be put in those rankings is another topic for another column, but the point is, it isn’t a class that impresses “the experts” on paper.
With Arkansas hiring Morris just before the early signing period, I didn’t expect much more. The period puts new coaches such as Morris behind the eight ball. It played a major factor, and he most likely won’t have a class ranked this low again.
He’s going to need to fill these next two or three classes with bigtime playmakers on both sides of the ball if he hopes to meet the microwave demand of rebuilding a program. His Texas ties will help him nab players Arkansas hasn’t been able to sign in the past. The process for 2019 is already well underway and looks promising.
But back to this inaugural class of freshmen. In four or five years when Morris’ tenure is in full-tilt boogie mode, the unheralded class will play a major part. The senior leaders of those teams will come partly from this class, and that is a good thing. While it’s short on numbers and five stars, there are some good players who have a potential to be shining examples of what Morris expects.
The highest-rated prep recruits Morris was able to sign were Greenwood High School quarterback Connor Noland and Texas linebacker Bumper Poole. Both of these players could be multi-year starters and faces of the program. Either of them had their choice of schools. Both have dreamed of playing for the Hogs and never wavered from their commitments.
When Greenwood played at Benton last fall, I asked Greenwood Coach Rick Jones if Noland would consider another school since former UA Coach Bret Bielema’s seat was scorching hot. The coach said Noland was committed to Arkansas no matter who the coach was because he wanted to play for the Hogs.
The move to Morris is a break for Noland. The high-octane offense suits him better than Bielema’s run-first approach and is similar to what he ran at Greenwood. The 2017 Landers Award winner seems like a lock to be the star of the class if he can navigate a crowded quarterback room. It will be interesting to see who will start this year (More on that in coming weeks), and if he and prolific Texas prep quarterback, John Steven Jones, will both be redshirted. With incumbents Cole Kelley, Ty Storey and Daulton Hyatt in place along with former TCU signee and New York Yankees farmhand Austin Aune transferring to the program, Noland shouldn’t be needed next season. However, look for him to start at QB for at least two years and whenever his time does arrive, he could be leading a Hogs team on the verge of a breakthrough.
Pool grew up a diehard Hogs fan with several family members who attended the school. The bond only strengthened when family friends Casey and Nathan Dick signed to play at Arkansas. Not only did Pool play multiple positions at Lovejoy High School, but he owned a 3.85 GPA. He has a great chance to be one of the members of this class who will play immediately and be a four-year letterman and most assuredly will be a team captain.
Another big get was Alabama safety Myles Mason who was routinely rated as a three-star but ESPN tabbed him with a four-star rating. Regardless, the former Mississippi State pledge chose Arkansas over the Bulldogs and perennial in-state powers Auburn and Alabama. Like Pool, Mason could also see snaps immediately.
The rest of the class is dotted with three-star recruits with potential. There will be players that don’t pan out or are injured or another factor prevents them from playing or being productive. There will also be players like former Hogs receiver Drew Morgan, who exceed expectations.
Either way, this class of freshmen should be more valuable than it looks now. If that’s the case, look for the Hogs to be ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process.