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Welcome to Going Deep with Nate Olson

Compromise to keep Hogs games at WMS is a Win/Win

Of all the scenarios that could have unfolded regarding the future of Arkansas playing at War Memorial Stadium the powers that be chose the best one that should be well-received for a long time.

Stadium officials officially unveiled a contract Thursday for the Razorbacks to play SEC East foe Missouri in Little Rock through 2024. The years the Hogs play at Missouri, the Red/White spring game, pending a waiver from the SEC, will be played in Little Rock. So, most likely there won’t be one year that central Arkansas area Hogs fans don’t get at least a glimpse of the team.

Kudos to all parties working together to find a contract that is mutually beneficial. There are stipulations and concessions from both sides. WMS will have to sell at least 47,000 tickets and ticket revenue should total at least $2.1 million in 2019, increasing by $200,000 each game to $2.5 million in 2023. If those minimums aren’t met each side will discuss factors that contributed to lack of attendance. WMS has also agreed to two separate renovation phases to modernize technology and security and meet SEC standards. State officials feel that money is well-spent if it means securing a commitment from Arkansas.

You don’t think the game is beneficial to the football program? I’ll get to that in a minute.

I like this agreement for several reasons. First, it keeps games in Little Rock. It’s a tradition that dates back decades and sets Arkansas apart from other programs that has abandoned such games. Frankly, those games and the stadium are huge part of Arkansas culture.

But the key part to this is, not only is Arkansas going to play here, but it’s going to be against a meaningful opponent. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from fans here is the quality, or lack thereof, of the opponents. Alcorn State, Florida A&M, etc. During a mediocre season, especially, it is naïve to expect sellout crowds for terrible opponents. Then players, coaches and others blame the Little Rock crowd for lackluster performances. That was one of my biggest criticisms of Bret Bielema that he obviously hated playing here. It trickled down to his team and is why they were upset by Toledo and played ho-hum against two awful FCS opponents in Alcorn and FAMU.

So now, fans can’t complain about the opponent. Missouri is a conference game and a series that while I think is being too manufactured as a rivalry has a chance to be anticipated. The Tigers are obviously a much better draw than some FCS also ran. Most would rather play a decent SEC opponent every other year than a cupcake every year. It’s worth the wait.

Here’s how the football program won. Do you remember how great Friday afternoons the day after Thanksgiving were against LSU? I know, I know, Mizzou isn’t LSU, but I bet the festive atmosphere is intact.

Anybody that has attended the Missouri game in Fayetteville noticed how sparse it was, especially last year during a crappy season. The big reason is the students are out for Thanksgiving break. That is always going to hurt the attendance there. With that Friday game in Little Rock now, the Hogs have a much better chance of playing in front of a packed, noisy stadium. I’d put some of those LSU game atmospheres up against many of the Fayetteville crowds. If that stadium is full, it is one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the country.  Not to mention with the golf course, it boasts one of the great tailgating atmospheres in college football.

The most interesting component of this deal is the agreement to play the Red/White game in Little Rock.  I was impressed with the schedule of events and festivities, including an appearance at an Arkansas Travelers game, the athletic department organized. The unusually cold weather and sleet obviously hampered attendance, but the plan was there.  

The spring game seems to be kind of meh in Fayetteville, like it is on a lot of campuses, but if it’s organized right and the team is successful, the spring game has a chance to be well-attended and eventful. I would encourage as much player/fan interaction as possible. A lot of central Arkansas fans miss out on Fan Fest and the luncheon in NWA that kicks off the season. There are more chances for NWA fans to meet the players and coaches. Make this weekend about getting fans, especially kids, up close. The Travs appearance is a good start, but a post-game autograph session or meet-and-greet would be welcome, too.

This agreement may not stop the Great Stadium Debate. There will still be WMS proponents that want to play a game there every year. There will still be critics outside of the area that call WMS a dump and point to Little Rock’s crime problem. However, this is a great solution that makes both sides look good. They came together to find the best solution possible. Well done.

 

Knight’s Big Night Makes for lasting Memory for Olson Boys

As the Arkansas baseball season began, I shared my plans to take my boys to a game with Karen Knight.

That’s Karen Knight as in Hogs star pitcher Blaine Knight’s mother.

“You better go on a Friday night game to see Blaine pitch,” she said referring to her son’s place in the pitching rotation as the ace during SEC weekend series.

Karen is a staff member at Collegeville Elementary School in Bryant where my boys J.D., 9, and Luke, 6, attend. They adore Karen and idolize Blaine, who attended Collegeville in his hometown and is a regular visitor at the school.

So, I scoured the schedule and decided on the last weekend home series with Texas A&M. The boys’ Saturday morning soccer schedule made it virtually impossible to attend a Friday game from March until the first week in May.

I was informed soon after that my wife, Sheena, had planned to go to the big Justin Moore concert in downtown Little Rock with friends that so this would be an all-boys affair.

The first order was to acquire tickets. Admittedly, I drug my feet, and I thought would have to settle for ordering from a ticket broker site. I found trios of tickets that were reasonable and was comforted to notice that plenty remained.

But before I ordered two weeks before the game, I posted on Facebook seeking face-value tickets. Within an hour I had a message from a family friend offering three free tickets on the front row next to the Aggies dugout.

Suddenly, this had the makings of a special night The boys were ecstatic.

I checked them out of school after lunch last Friday, and we arrived in Fayetteville after stopping briefly in Russellville for milkshakes. The first order was to grab our tickets from our friend, and then we headed to Baum Stadium. At 4:30, an hour and a half before game time, the free parking lot across from the stadium was already filling up.

I let JD finish his nap in the back seat of the van, and then we made our way to Gate D on the far side of the stadium. The first thing the boys saw upon entering the gate was a makeshift whiffle ball diamond that had been constructed. A grandfather was pitching batting practice to his grandsons and gladly welcomed my guys to join in.

After 30 minutes of playing, I coaxed them to our seats. We were warned by the ticket holders to bring our gloves since foul balls make their way to the section often. We saw a pair of elderly couples already in their seats with the husbands clutching their gloves.

JD and Luke had big eyes as UA Coach Mike Anderson took to the mound for the first pitch. They couldn’t believe how close we were, and they loved it.

When Knight was introduced both of them cheered. After playing in the warm, late-afternoon sun both were thirsty, but I convinced them to wait to visit the concession stand until the middle of the first inning. Knight mowed down the Aggies in the opening frame, and we grabbed some sodas and Gatorades and were back in our seats in time to see the Hogs explode for four runs.

Knight gave up two home runs and Arkansas clung to a 4-3 lead in the fifth. The boys were having fun but longed to go back to the diamond. I started holding them off after the third.

 I told them that we would go back as soon as Knight left the game. JD said, “He will probably pitch the entire game, that’s not a good deal for us.”

After Arkansas blew the game open with five runs in the fifth, I relented.

The young boys were still at the diamond with their grandfather, but the whiffle balls were long gone, driven outside the stadium gates by some young slugger. The remaining boys were tossing baseballs. My boys had a ball they had brought that they snagged at an Arkansas Travelers game.

They played catch and tried to convince me to let them hit the hard ball with the plastic bat, but I overruled. I got them to go back to watch the game by buying a big basket of BBQ nachos from a silver trailer nearby.

We sat in the concourse and snacked while watching the scoreboard. JD left for the seats and Luke and I followed in the top of the eighth. J.D.’s focus was now seeing Knight after the game, so we planned in the bottom of the eighth to move to a row near the Arkansas dugout in anticipation of meeting Knight near the dugout where he regularly visits his folks after games.

As the game moved to the top of the 9th Hogs sophomore Jordan McFarland flipped a ball into the crowd near the dugout. He looked at Luke and promised him a ball after the game, but then promptly popped right back out of the dugout with a ball and tossed it to Luke which he caught in his glove. He was very proud of himself for making the catch.

The game ended, and several players came over to a group of boys and signed autographs. The boys received signatures from both Luke Bonfield and Heston Kjerstad. Knight was busy being interviewed on the SEC Network broadcast and then joined the rest of his teammates sprawled out on the grass to watch the post-game fireworks.

When the fireworks ended Casey Martin and others signed. With Knight headed to the dressing room to address the media, we found his mom. We took a few pictures, and she encouraged us stop by Gate B and the dressing room entrance to check if he had emerged.

On the way, we found the fruit kabob stand was still open. We had seen fans clutching the chocolate-covered fruit kabobs all night but hadn’t located the vendor since it was on the other side of the park. We bought a kabob and an ice cream cookie sandwich on a stick.

With desserts in hand, we headed toward Gate B and saw the slender Knight posing for pictures. We waited our turn and JD inhaled the rest of his kabob as to not have to hold it in the picture. Luke held the sandwich, which made for a funny picture. Knight signed both of their baseballs with a smile. He lit up upon hearing they attend Collegeville and knew his mom. J.D. was worried about making sure Karen knew where her son was, but he assured him that he wouldn’t leave without seeing her.

They headed to the car happy, even though Luke’s sandwich fell off the stick and plopped on the pavement right in front of an elderly woman who made a nice sidestep to avoid stepping in the mess. Normally, this would upset Luke, but he had such fun that he just shrugged it off.

We got in the van and J.D. settled into the back and laid down with the pillow and blanket he had brought. Luke wasn’t ready for bed and asked me to pop in The Sandlot: Heading Home (The Sandlot 3) in the van DVD player, and he settled in.

By the time we hit the interstate heading south, J.D. was sawing logs.

It was a long (we didn’t get home until 1 a.m.) but fun day. Actually, it was perfect. We had great seats, the Hogs won easily and Knight turned in one of his best outings of the season with 11 strikeouts. Then, he and the others were nice enough to sign autographs and take pictures. That was by far J.D.’s favorite part. He loves meeting the players no matter what the sport or the level.

 Twenty years from now Luke will look at his game-used baseball that has signatures from Kjerstad, Martin and Knight. That’s a pretty cool keepsake. Hopefully, he will remember how much fun he had. I know I will.

***

Nate Olson is an award-winning sports columnist and blogger and his written about sports in Arkansas since 1998. His Razorbacks columns appear weekly on 1037theubzz.com, and he also is the sideline reporter for The Buzz High School Game of the Week.

 

Arkansas Makes Wrong Decision on Women’s Tennis Schedule

 

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. That seems to be a gray area with University of Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek and women’s tennis coach Michael Hegarty. 

In case you missed it (It’s women’s tennis, so you might have) Arkansas played tennis lightweight Tennessee State University in six matches in one day in an effort to even its record to the required .500 mark needed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Apparently, the underachieving Hogs caught fire in the SEC Tournament and raced to the semifinals. However, with a 10-16 record, were not eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

So, Hegarty got the brilliant idea to play creampuff opponent (Sorry TSU) six times in one day prior to tournament selection day, so the Razorbacks would be eligible. Arkansas was eliminated from the SEC Tournament in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday and that night hatched the plan to play TSU Sunday on its campus in Nashville, nearly three hours away.

First reported by the website Deadspin, WholeHogSports.com’s Matt Jones offered a thorough follow-up later this week. In that article, Jones reported that Arkansas paid TSU $15,000 (A measly sum if you ask me) for hosting the matches. He also notes there was no advanced publicity of the matches.

Arkansas swept the matches that began at 8 a.m. and concluded with a final match at 7 p.m. Jones also reported that Arkansas included the scores of the matches but no recap or box score which are included with the previous matches.

Arkansas blatantly took advantage of a loophole and while not cheating isn’t sportsmanlike, either.  They used TSU as a tackling dummy and threw them a couple of bucks for a grueling and humiliating day.

Yurachek signed off on the decision and justified the scrimmages citing the team’s desire.

“Initially, I did not support this, but what I do support are our student-athletes,” Yurachek told Jones. “It became apparent this was something that was important to them. They made a run, felt like they were playing well and felt like they were a legitimate NCAA Tournament team toward the end of the season.

“I have been very adamant throughout my career that I support student-athletes. If I had even gotten an inkling that this was something they didn’t support, I would not have changed my mind.”

 

Do all of the Razorbacks get a participation medal at the end of the season, too?

Too bad, Middle Tennessee State men’s basketball couldn’t find a loophole. The Blue Raiders ran through the Conference USA slate with a 16-2 mark and were picked by some experts as a sleeper in the NCAA Tournament. However, Southern Miss upset MTSU in the Conference USA Tournament and were denied an NCAA Tournament bid.

 

They dominated all season but didn’t win when they needed to and had to face the harsh reality which is mid-major college basketball. Done. Over. NIT Tournament bid.

 

The Razorbacks had their chances but failed to win in the regular season. A great charge that ended just short. Celebrate a nice run and get ready for next year.

 

Jones reports that double and tripleheaders are not unheard of in college tennis. He also adds that Alabama’s men’s team played a combined six rounds of matches against Jackson State and Jacksonville State on March 1, 2015. So, not unheard of, but very, very rare.

 

It’s understandable that the team’s desire tugged at Yurachek’s heart strings, but this is the SEC, not Fayetteville Parks and Recreation. It’s bigtime Division I collegiate athletics. The fact that Deadspin picked up this story and other outlets have followed shows in the SEC, it just means more as those annoying commercials point out. Every decision an AD makes at this level is scrutinized.

 

A bad decision and a bad look. Hopefully, Yurachek learned a cheap lesson.

 

Arkansas Rookies Looked Prime for Long Haul

Some pundits predicted before the season that Arkansas would win the College World Series. Not many would have predicted that a pair of freshmen would be one of the factors in the run.

But as Arkansas enters the home stretch of the regular season, Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad are the only freshmen in the country hitting more than .315 with 8 home runs or more. Kjerstad, the Texas native, is batting .373 with 9 homers. Martin, a Lonoke product, is hitting .331 with 8 home runs. 

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn hasn’t coached a freshmen duo that have been as impactful as Martin, a third baseman and Kjerstad, a left fielder.

“Not on power, no,” Van Horn said after the Hogs beat rival Missouri State 11-7 Tuesday night at Baum Stadium. “We had a couple when I was at Nebraska that could really run. And they both could hit. One of them ended up in the big leagues. One of them would have, but he blew his knee out three times. But to have two guys that are dynamic like that, that bring so much to the lineup as young as they are … Martin has the speed, but he also has power.  Kjerstad is such a threat, and he uses the whole ballpark to hit.”

The pair added to their status Tuesday by powering the Hogs to a comeback win over the Bears team that has become Arkansas’ greatest rival in any sport.

Martin, who was recently inserted into the leadoff spot, reached safely four out of five times. He also doubled and hit a three-run homer in the fifth inning that gave the Hogs the lead for good. The left-handed Kjerstad went 3-for-4 with four RBI and a leadoff homer in the fifth.

It was another example of the two coming up big in crucial spots. Kjerstad and Martin have learned from the best. The most obvious reason for the lofty preseason expectations was the solid nucleus of veteran players that returned. Seniors Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield and juniors Grant Koch, Eric Cole and Jax Biggers have taken the pressure off the freshmen.

“One of the things that helped me out a lot was just being able to be around guys that have had hundreds of at bats in the SEC,” Kjerstad told reporters. “They all bring important information to help me out and everyone else in the lineup.”

If Arkansas makes a deep run in the College World Series, we make look back on the impact of the rookies as a big reason why. The power they add may be just what was missing to an already-potent lineup. Home runs can make a big difference. Long balls late in games and at key times such as Tuesday night can mean the difference between winning and losing in the postseason.

If Van Horn felt good about his SEC-West leading team at the beginning of the season he has to feel even better after seeing his freshmen launch a combined 17 homers so far. It will be interesting to see how they respond to the pressure of the stretch run into the SEC Tournament and regionals. Arkansas begins a three-game series at SEC West Rival Mississippi State Friday night.

“I guess what has been fun to watch is that they really haven’t gone into that severe slump,” Van Horn said. “Even when you start to think, ‘Oh there goes the freshman, he’s starting to fade a little bit.’ Bang, they’ll have a good day and bounce back. They’ve both done a nice job mentally of hanging in there because this is a tough league. It can beat you up a little bit.”

 

Future of Arkansas Games at War Memorial Stadium Deeper Than Low Attendance at Red/White Game

I knew as soon as I saw the forecast for Little Rock last Saturday, the trolls would be lurking. With cold temperatures and rain, and maybe even light snow, predicted I knew the Red/White Game at War Memorial Stadium would be lightly attended. 

And I knew if that happened, social media would be full of criticism for lack of support in central Arkansas. Sure enough, right before kickoff pictures circulating of a crowd that looked similar to those of Little Rock Catholic games on Friday nights, much to the delight of the detractors.

Since the Great Stadium Debate began in the late 1990s, the back-and-forth between the two sides has been nauseating. Every time there is a lackluster crowd at War Memorial Stadium, the boo birds appeaR. The week of a Little Rock game is full of negative talk about the city’s crime problem and the “rundown stadium.” It got worse during former UA athletic director Jeff Long’s tenure. It seemed pretty clear Long had compiled a list of reasons it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to play the games in Little Rock.

But what we didn’t know in September when Long came to speak at the Little Rock Touchdown Club, he met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson first. He unveiled millions of dollars in improvements to be made to make the stadium viable.

Everything changed when the Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism began managing the stadium. That made keeping Arkansas games in Little Rock in the best interest of the state. It was reported that the Board of Trustees told Long that Hutchinson wanted to keep games at the stadium and that he needed to draw up that proposal of improvements.

That news sort of got lost when it was announced Long was fired. But it was an indicator that the contract may be renewed, which it appeared if it were up to Long, it wouldn’t be.

So, it definitely appears that the state’s management of the stadium has opened up the possibility. It also seems very possible that the state will come up with the funds to make the changes necessary to update the stadium.

That’s leverage the stadium didn’t have before the change. Which begs the question, does the change in management trigger an Arkansas/Arkansas State series? I’ve always said the only way it would happen is if the state legislature got involved. Athletics decisions have been settled that way in other states.  I just never envisioned anyone at Arkansas inviting Arkansas State to the table to discuss it.

The Department of Parks and Tourism wants to keep the stadium viable. The best way to do that is to keep the Razorbacks playing in Little Rock. The best way to do that may be to play Arkansas State every year in the season opener.

Arkansas can always lean on the “it’s a no-win situation” argument. They will most always be a heavy favorite over the mid-major Red Wolves, and if they happened to lose it would be tough to swallow. I’m not sure what can be said to convince the Arkansas administration it’s a good idea. There would most likely be a charity tie-in, and it would save the Hogs more than a million dollars in a guarantee game they wouldn’t have to schedule since this game presumably would be a neutral site game of sorts. Profits would be split. There are many details to be sorted out and even if both sides were open there would be some heavy negotiating.

Gov. Hutchinson may never be directly involved in the talks. Such a polarizing matter may create hard feelings, but the stadium and its state control could be a conduit to at least starting the conversation.

I’m not confident predicting anything other than the stadium will be sold out for the Arkansas/Ole Miss game in October and some segment of the Razorbacks fan base will be complaining the entire week.

 

 

Hall, Jones Transfers More Bad Breaks for Anderson at Arkansas

Two players expected to start next season and be counted on to play major roles. The two abruptly announce they are transferring less than a month after the season ends. And that is Mike Anderson’s tenure at Arkansas in a nutshell.

I started hearing the whispers of freshman Darious Hall’s transfer about a week ago. Word had it, he wanted to be reunited with Penny Hardaway, the new Coach at Memphis. Hall played in the famed Peach Jam tournament with Hardaway’s team. He also played with the Magic Elite based out of Memphis so a connection with Hardaway didn’t seem to be a stretch. So, I wasn’t surprised when Anderson made the news official about the freshman Little Rock native’s transfer. I was surprised by the announcement of sophomore C.J. Jones’ transfer. The official release didn’t indicate where either player is headed. We will see if both or either winds up with Hardaway at Memphis. More on that in a minute.

Wherever they go, the move creates yet another headache for Anderson. Three NCAA Tournament bids in seven years and no Sweet 16 appearances is not the way he envisioned the revitalization process.

There hasn’t been enough continuity or timing. When it looks promising for an Anderson team, a bomb shell drops.

Anderson couldn’t land in-state recruits Archie Goodwin or Malik Madden. He couldn’t keep Little Rock native Bobby Portis for more than two years. Probably the same scenario with El Dorado’s Daniel Gafford this year. Some critics would say a year with those start players should be enough, but Portis was twice the player he was as a sophomore. Then, right when he and Michael Qualls had established good chemistry, they both bolted for the NBA. Odds are Gafford will have a standout sophomore season and do the same thing.

Anderson had to dismiss Jacorey Williams from the team and suspended Anton Beard and Dustin Thomas for after a forgery scandal. Williams, who was also involved in an incident with a bouncer at a Fayetteville bar in the summer of 2015, transferred to Middle Tennessee State and became a star. Beard sat out a semester his sophomore and never lived up to the potential he showed late in his freshman year. Thomas, a senior last seaon, missed a handful of starts with what we can only speculate for disciplinary reasons last season and then was kicked off the team before the SEC Tournament.

And the list for Anderson goes on. Take a step forward and two steps back. Anderson probably thought he’d dodged a bullet when Gafford announced a week ago he was not going to enter the NBA Draft. That relief turned to dread when he discovered Jones and Hall, both he was counting on to start, would not be in Fayetteville next season.

So, the prospects without Gafford looked bleak then seemed better with news of his return and now without two players expected to complement with scoring punch – bleak again. An NCAA Tournament appearance with the roster intact and a talented freshman class wasn’t guaranteed, but there was potential. Now, there may just be one upperclassman in the lineup, junior forward Adrio Bailey, and at least one freshman. Gafford is the only proven scorer returning, and the guard court is void of any real experience. That could mean a long season even with an NBA Lottery pick in the middle.

It’s now paramount that prized guard recruit Khalil Garland return. The former Little Rock Parkview star sat out the 2017-18 season with an undisclosed medical condition. Maybe there will be news on Garland’s status soon. The best case for Anderson would be if he could return this summer and be ready for preseason practices. Anderson needs some good news, and that would soften the blow.      

Now, back to Hardaway. Whether Hall lands in Memphis or not, Arkansas may not have as easy of a time landing in-state recruits, Little Rock prospects in particular, if Hardaway turns the Tigers around like it appears he will. He just hired former NBA journeyman Mike Miller, who played at Florida under Billy Donovan, as an assistant and is reportedly working on legendary college and NBA coach Larry Brown. Having Brown sitting next to him just may be the difference in taking the Tigers to the Final 4. Hardaway will have the Tigers roster full of talent. That you can be certain. His pull in Memphis, a prep basketball hot bed, alone is a huge advantage. The Xs and Os and in-game strategy may be the learning curve for Hardaway. Brown’s experience would be big.  Memphis’ close proximity to Little Rock and Jonesboro is reason to keep an eye on them as the years move along.  Anderson has done well mining the state the past few classes.

Anderson owns a respectable 151–86 (.637) record at Arkansas. He’s done some good things and run a clean program. However, it is setbacks such as these transfers that has kept him from taking Arkansas to SEC Championships and deep NCAA Tournament runs.

Gafford’s Decision to Stay at Arkansas Means Big Difference for Hogs Next Season

 

Mike Anderson didn’t have to wait until Sunday for the Easter Bunny to visit. Early last week, Hogs freshman big man Daniel Gafford announced he’s returning to Arkansas for his sophomore season. Arkansas fans were apprehensive after reading story after story from NBA experts predicting Gafford would be a high NBA Draft pick if he declared after his lone collegiate season. The recent announcement restores hope that next season will not

 Gafford offered little insight to his decision. That will come later, but it didn’t take him long to make up his mind. Many times, prospects test the NBA waters without hiring an agent to keep the door open for a return. Apparently, Gafford didn’t feel the need to do that. It seemed to be an easy decision to return even though there was a great chance he’d be a millionaire this summer if he declared.

I’m sure Anderson was breathing a sigh of relief. Losing two of the most dynamic guards in Razorbacks history with Darryl Macon and Jaylen Barford along with four other seniors, and Gafford would have been catastrophic for next year.

With a group of role players and newcomers an NCAA Tournament bid would almost be out of the question. With Gafford, not only is a berth back in play, but snapping the program’s skid of Sweet 16 appearances since 1996 is also a possibility. He is that good.

Gafford averaged 11.8 points, 2.2 blocks and 6.2 rebounds per game this year. He also had more dunks himself than a handful of SEC teams. The 6-10 post was spectacular at times but like most freshmen had some off games.

With two great senior guards running the team, Gafford often took a back seat. It’s very similar to the situation former Hog star Bobby Portis, a mentor off Gafford’s, was in.  He had a solid freshman year and could would have been drafted. He stayed another year to increase his stock.

The difference in the two years for Portis was he felt more comfortable with the offense running through him. Mike Anderson said he often deferred to older players his freshman year. In Gafford’s case, he was most always going to be the third option this year, and that was OK. It allowed him to get his feet wet. Next year, he will need to score more. The others will look to him first, and it will be Gafford taking big shots at the end of games in some cases.

Two things that will help him are extending his range and making his free throws at a better clip than 53 percent.  Portis improved at shooting the outside shot, and it enhanced his game. Gafford could benefit from that, too. No doubt, he will do a lot of shooting this summer.

Gafford will be better and could be an All-American and Top 10 draft pick in 2019. But he will need help to navigate Arkansas on a deep tournament run. The best bet currently on the roster is athletic forward Darious Hall. The freshman showed flashes of brilliance and made some spectacular dunks in transition. He proved he can come up with some big steals and rebounds adding a spark. He needs to be able to score and shoot better.

Junior Adrio Bailey may not be better than a role player, but he will need to play more minutes and bring an imposing presence to the paint. As excited as Anderson is to hear the news about Gafford, he would be just as excited to find out freshman guard Khalil Garland is medically cleared for next year.  An undisclosed illness sidelined the Little Rock Parkview standout. Garland, who was the No. 12-ranked guard in the 2018 class, could definitely help fill the void left by Macon and Barford.

Anderson has a large freshman class he’s counting on but who will step up is yet to be determined. At least three of them will have to play significant minutes. If they play well and feed off Gafford, the team could surprise some people.

If they didn’t have Gafford to lean on, it could have been a long season. Anderson will surely take his chances with Gafford and a cast of role players and unproved freshmen.

Big Week Propels Arkansas Baseball with Gators Looming

Arkansas showed last week why some college baseball experts picked the Hogs to win the College World Series. Saying Arkansas has been disappointing in the early nonconference season may be too strong but for a team that was ranked in the preseason Top 5, there were some unexpected hiccups.

The Razorbacks lost to Cal Poly and San Diego at the Tony Gwynn Classic hosted by San Diego State. Arkansas was a heavy favorite in both of those games. Then, the Hogs split a home stand with USC and Kent State. Losing to the Trojans isn’t terrible, but USC isn’t upper echelon SEC-caliber, either. As far as Kent State, UA Coach Dave Van Horn doesn’t schedule MAC teams for splits.

So, while not many jumped off the Hogs’ bandwagon some of the luster had worn off. Arkansas just didn’t look dominant as expected. Good? Yes. Top 5 in the nation? Maybe not.

Then, historically hated rival Texas rolled into Fayetteville. The Razorbacks took advantage of a sloppy Longhorns team in a 13-4 rout. Arkansas then hung on to win 7-5 a day later sweeping the series.

Riding a three-game winning streak, Arkansas welcomed No. 4 Kentucky in the SEC opening series continuing the lengthy home stand. The Hogs made a major statement scoring 39 runs in a dominant three-game sweep.

UK entered the game with the higher ranking, but Arkansas made a case for why they are the class of the SEC. None of the three games was close, and the 16-2 and 16-9 scores are scores thought of from some of the nonconference games Arkansas lost early.

After the five-game sweep of Texas and Kentucky Arkansas is back in the Top 5.

What the Hogs showed last week is if they play their best they will be hard to beat. This Texas team isn’t as good as some of the past, but it was still a big nonconference series that attracted interest across the college baseball landscape. What the Hogs did to a team that some thought could challenge for an SEC title was ridiculous.

The Hogs are winning with the key contributions from names you’d expect but also some you wouldn’t. Senior outfielder Luke Bonfield leads the team in hitting with a .377 average with 4 homers and 17 RBI. True freshman infielder Casey Martin, from Lonoke, is hitting .369 with 7 homers and 22 RBI. The highly touted in-state product has made a surprising immediate impact and already has two SEC Freshman of the Week honors to his credit, including last week.

Fellow freshman Heston Kjerstad, an outfielder, has done the same thing with a .366 average with a team-leading 26 hits and 25 RBI. Returning juniors Eric Cole, an outfielder, and shortstop Jax Biggers, who was the SEC Player of the Week last week, are both hitting over .350.

On the hill, junior Blaine Knight, of Bryant, has been dominant as expected with a 3-0 record and 1.3 ERA. Rogers Heritage product Kacey Murphy, also a junior, is 3-0 with a 1.69 ERA. Freshman Caleb Boldin has been solid, mostly out of the bullpen, with a 2-0 mark and 2.13 ERA. Sophomore Matt Cronin is 2-0 with 3 saves.

Arkansas cooled off a bit Wednesday in a 6-3 loss at Charlotte. The first game of the series was rained out. However, the big games this week are in Gainesville, Fla.  The Hogs play the No. 2 Gators in a three-game series. The SEC is just brutal. What other conference do teams play Top 5 teams in back-to-back weeks? This series will test Arkansas’ mettle, especially being on the road.

The recent string of success came in Fayetteville. This will be Arkansas’ first big road test. If the Razorbacks play like they did last week, they will have a chance to take the series and establish themselves as the team to beat in the league.

 

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.

 

Home Game with UK Sets Up Big Finish for Hogs 

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.