Kevin McPherson: Hogs Face Big, Early Test from Gators

 

Just minutes after his Hogs thoroughly dismantled a solid mid-major in Sam Houston State, 90-56, Thursday night at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock to move to 11-1, Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Mike Anderson did not hesitate or mince words when asked if his team was ready for SEC play, which begins for them in December for the first time ever.

“Ready or not, it’s coming!” he shot back.

Man, is it ever. The Florida Gators (9-3 with an RPI of No. 8 at the time of this writing) come into Bud Walton Arena on Thursday, Dec. 29, as the Hogs (11-1, RPI No. 19) look to add what would be a HUGE win to their NCAA Tournament resume come March. Florida has been ranked in the human polls already this season, and the Gators currently represent the highest-rated SEC team in the RPI computer rankings, which is one of the formal criteria considered by the NCAAT selection committee when handing out at-large bids to the Dance.

It’s a chance for the Razorbacks to get the Gators on their home floor for the first time in 3 seasons (the SEC also has the Hogs playing at Gainesville later in the conference schedule, which could mark the first time since SEC expansion that one SEC team has traveled to play another SEC team 3 years in a row when the two teams were not part of an annual home-and-away series). Mike Anderson’s Hogs have not beaten a Gators squad since his 2nd season at Arkansas (2012-13), meaning the Gators have won 4 in a row with 3 of those games being played away from BWA.

The step-up in competition against a league foe SURELY will help fill seats at Bud Walton Arena. Not saying that playing in front of an energized 12,000 fans in Little Rock had anything to with the Hogs playing their most complete game of the season Thursday against SHS, but maybe it did.

Regardless of the growing pains experienced by a team with 7 newcomers, and aside from a wash-out at Minnesota (currently 12-1 and RPI No. 7), the Hogs have beaten the other 11 teams on their schedule to this point, including 8 wins in a row.

The resume includes a 1-1 record vs. the RPI Top 25 (the loss to MN plus a home win vs. RPI No. 17 Texas-Arlington, which boasts road wins over Texas and then-No. 12 St. Mary’s). And the Hogs are 4-1 vs. the RPI Top 100 (loss to MN, win vs. UTA, and home wins over RPI No. 81 Sam Houston State, No. 84 Houston, and No. 94 Fort Wayne). The neutral-site win over Texas (6-5, RPI No. 129) is helpful because it’s a win away from home against a Big XII program, and the young-but-talented Longhorns will have plenty of opportunities to improve on their RPI in Big XII play, which could boost the Hogs’ RPI.

Not a bad resume, but not one that points to a likely NCAAT bid if the season ended today, either. In his most-recent update on Dec. 22, ESPN’s NCAAT Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as one of his “Last 4 In”, squeaking by as a 12-seed with a “play-in” game against 12-seeded Northwestern. That’s the very definition of being on “The Bubble”, so it magnifies the importance of the Florida matchup, even though it’s only December.

Factor in that the Hogs follow up the Florida game with back-to-back road games against Tennessee (Tues., Jan. 3) and No. 6 Kentucky (Sat., Jan. 7), and it only heightens the sense of just how critical this first SEC game is for the Hogs. Plenty of motivating factors to inspire this improving Razorbacks team and its fans.

But back to the question posed to Head Hog Mike Anderson on Thursday: “Are the Hogs ready” for SEC play and the Florida Gators?

I believe they are, but I think this is another toss-up game (same feeling I had about the Hogs-vs.-’Horns in Houston last week, which is how it turned out).

When you think of the Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball, and its predecessor 40 Minutes of Hell, you think of deep Razorback squads that wear teams down and force lots of turnovers en route to easy buckets that lead to piling up Ws.

But, this isn’t your Dad’s version of Hawgball. Arkansas is only forcing 14.8 turnovers per game (and has turned over only one opponent 20 times or more out of 12 games); conversely, the Hogs have been sloppy with the basketball, suffering unforced turnovers to the tune of 12.8 giveaways a game. That’s only a plus-1.5 in the turnover margin, which does not exactly resemble what Hog fans have grown accustomed to with this system.

Yet statistics can be misleading if you don’t take a step back and look at them globally. The Hogs are winning the rebounding battles by a plus-6.0-margin per game, 39.9 to 33.9, which helps boost their possessions advantage. Now, that’s likely to change once the Hogs start playing bigger and better athletes in the SEC, but the Hogs’ field-goal-percentage defense has been outstanding as well. They’re holding opponents to 40.0% shooting on the season. The Hogs are among the best in the SEC in three important defensive categories: the aforementioned rebound-margin (4th in the SEC), blocks (5.8 per game is 5th in the SEC), and steals (8.6 per game is tops in the league, so even though the overall turnover numbers are down, the steals give the Hogs opportunities to score in transition).

I think the big, hidden value for these Hogs defensively, though, is the pressure their OFFENSE has put on opponents – pressure from both the first and second units – which causes opponents to expend lots of energy trying to keep up and defend, and as the game progresses, that spent energy causes teams to lose bounce in their legs which in turn affects their shooting. The Hogs’ ball movement, spacing, and consistent hard-dribble-drives into the paint have all conspired to put pressure on opposing defenses, which affects opponents on the offensive end of the floor.

I’ve said since that August day when the Hogs touched down back in the states fresh off their 4-game tour of Spain that the strength of this team was not just the depth and quality of a 6-man backcourt, but the fact these guards would not be defined by makes and misses from the 3-point line. No, this group is mentally and physically up to the task of driving the ball to the basket, where they are very efficient at either scoring the ball or getting to the FT line.

Daryl Macon continues to show he’s the Hogs’ best offensive player at all 3 levels, and when you combine his defensive play, I think he’s emerged as the team’s best all-around player. He’s second on the team with 13.3 points per game, and leads the team with 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals. Leading-scorer Dusty Hannahs (14.9 points per game) has shown time and again he’s effective at driving into the lane and either scoring or getting to the foul line. Jaylen Barford (10.3 points per game) is a strong slasher, first and foremost. Manny Watkins is an economical shooter (53.6% FGs leads the Top 9 players in the rotation) who gets his in and around the paint. And Anton Beard (9.0 points per game) does a solid job penetrating and finishing, too, off the bench.

And if you make the mistake of fouling these guys, you put the second-best free-throw shooting team in the SEC at the foul line. The Hogs are making a blistering 77.9% at the charity stripe. Just looking at some of the offensive numbers as a whole, it paints a pretty picture of efficient production: 83.6 points per game (2nd SEC), 16.6 assists per game (3rd SEC), and 46.6% FG shooting (4th SEC).

But the best part of this team, and the MVP so far this season, just might surprise you. It’s not one of the guards, and it’s not preseason SEC Player of the Year Moses Kingsley, who’s had his struggles before coming on of late. He’s averaging a respectable 11.3 points on 48.4% FG shooting, and he’s second in the SEC at 8.3 rebounds per game, and he’s tops in the league with 2.9 blocks per game. He had his best offensive game in some time on Thursday against SHS, scoring 13 of his team-high 17 points in the first half to go along with a team-best 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Great timing for ”Beast Mo” to play 2 strong halves in a game as a lead-up to SEC play, but it’s not MVP stuff. The storyline so far for these Hogs really has been the bench play – a collection of MVPs if you will. Mike Anderson has pointed to this numerous times throughout the season. He’s got a roster with ZERO stars but “8 or 9 starters” as he likes to put it. He’s used multiple starting lineups, and because of the depth and quality of his roster 1-through-12, the bench is the team’s trump card.

In the last 6 games alone, the Hogs’ bench has outscored its opponents’ benches to the tune of 228-77 … that’s a whopping 38.0-to-12.8 points-per-game advantage (a 25.2-points-per-game margin). That’s huge!

So, it might be fair to flip the question and ask: “Is the SEC ready for Arkansas?” The Hogs are not an easy team to scout because you don’t know who’s going to start, what personnel combinations that Mike Anderson’s going to use, and which players are going to have big nights which affects who’s on the floor in game-critical situations. This kind of musical chairs with a deep rotation of capable players has always been what ignites the best in this system of basketball.

So I ask you, SEC: Are you ready for the Fastest 40? Ready or not, it’s coming!

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

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