Kevin McPherson: Razorback Basketball Rewind

 

 

 Fastest 40 revved up and took off in 2016-17

Now that the 2016-17 college basketball season is over, we can look back at the Arkansas Razorbacks’ campaign and see that it was a successful one on many levels.

For starters, following a 16-16 season in 2015-16 that was a letdown after a 27-win / NCAA-tournament / Top 20 season in 2014-15,  the expectations were high as head coach Mike Anderson welcomed eight newcomers into the sixth season of his Arkansas program — a new journey that was either going to prove the program was trending up or leave serious doubts with fans if it missed the NCAAT for the fifth time in six years.

Mission accomplished on the upward trend as the Arkansas Razorback Basketball team won 26 games (tied for 7th most in school history), finished third in the SEC and second in the SECT, and was a couple of bad calls/no-calls away from upsetting eventual national champion and No. 1 seed North Carolina, which would have sent the Hogs to their first Sweet 16 in 21 years.

And because of Arkansas’s strong ’16-’17 effort, now when you look back on the past 3 seasons you can see the the program moving in the right direction at a time when the SEC looks to be gaining traction nationally as a league. Not only did five SEC teams make the NCAAT this year, but three of those — Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina – advanced to the Elite Eight. Arkansas did not fare as well as those teams in the Dance, but the fact is the Hogs have the second-most overall wins (69) in the SEC next to Kentucky in the past 3 seasons, as well as the second-best SEC record (38-23), second-best SEC road record (15-12), second-most trips to the SECT title game (2), and second-most NCAAT trips (2) – ALL behind only Kentucky — in that same 3-year span.

Mike Anderson was pleased with his sixth Arkansas team and went into detail about the season during his year-in-review press conference a couple of weeks ago.

“Really proud of this group, it was a team that got better as the season went on,” Anderson said. “You never know with so many new faces coming onto a team, with the holdovers we had from last year … you don’t know how it will all shake out, but we got a glimpse of it during the summer months, the foreign-tour trip, and I thought that was big in the development of this basketball team. 

“You worry about a team starting out so early. Will they hit that peak performance at the wrong time? Will they kind of fan out? But I thought this team still could’ve played some really good basketball, so to see it end against a very good North Carolina team, the way it ended, it’s kind of disheartening. But at the same time I thought we saw this team make basketball relevant at the University of Arkansas, and across the nation.”

So, here we go with a rewind of the Hogs’ bounce-back 2016-17 campaign …

* Arkansas got off to a hot start, winning 11 of its first 12 games entering SEC play. Early wins over UT-Arlington and Houston didn’t turn any heads nationally, but in the long run they helped the Hogs finish with a No. 28 RPI (UTA finished No. 45 RPI and Houston No. 54 RPI). A lopsided road loss at Minnesota in the early going may have hurt the feelings of Hog fans hungering for a win against a high-major opponent, but the Gophers ended up No. 20 in the RPI so it certainly didn’t hurt the Hogs’ NCAAT at-large resume. Getting a neutral-site December win over Texas in Houston was probably pivotal in the non-conference if for no other reason than a loss would have been bad on the overall resume. The Hogs managed a smartly designed non-conference schedule that was short on sexy match-ups, but long on RPI-boosting opportunities.

From a personnel and overall team standpoint, those first 12 games revealed several truths about these Hogs: 1) Not only was there no true point guard on this team, but no combo guard whose facilitating trumped his scoring instincts would emerge; 2) Preseason SEC Player of the Year pick Moses Kingsley’s production dipped from his breakout junior season, partly due to the lack of a facilitating point guard; 3) the Hogs’ back-court easily looked to be CMA’s best guard corps since returning to Fayetteville; 4) depth and the bench would be the team’s calling card; 5) Offense was good but defense was a Jekyll-and-Hyde work in process, while outstanding free-throw shooting would be a helpful secret weapon once the Hogs stepped up competition in SEC games.

* Arkansas got off to a rocky start in SEC play, going 1-3 out of the gates that included home losses to 25th-ranked Florida (Hogs’ sixth straight loss to the Gators in the first December SEC game in Arkansas’s history) and 150-plus-RPI Mississippi State (moving that young team to 2-1 over the Hogs in their last 3 meetings). But there were some silver linings in that 1-3 SEC beginning: 1) Hogs battled Kentucky valiantly for a half in Lexington before Jaylen Barford picked up 3 fouls in 11 seconds early in the 2nd-half in what turn into a blowout loss; 2) Arkansas overcame a 14-point deficit to beat Tennessee on the road — a foreshadowing of things to come against a Vols team with a solid RPI; 3) After struggling through the non-conference with spotty production, Barford got things cooking once SEC play began; and 4) Even at 1-3 in league play, the Hogs (12-4 overall at this point) were still projected as an NCAAT at-large team.

* Arkansas won 5 SEC games in a row, sandwiched around a blowout loss to a good Oklahoma State team on the road in the SEC-Big XII Challenge. The Hogs walloped Missouri at home to get things started, then got a second crucial SEC road win after erasing another double-digit deficit to beat Texas A&M (62-60), followed by a bizarre 99-86 home win over LSU in a game where the Hogs struggled to defend. What happened next was not only improbable, but it’s one of a handful of regular-season games you can point to as a catalyst for the Hogs’ return to the NCAAT: Arkansas trailed Vanderbilt by 14 points late in Nashville, but rallied in the final 5 minutes for a 71-70 win on the strength of  an offensive outburst by Dusty Hannahs and 3 consecutive made free throws by junior guard Daryl Macon, who was fouled on a 3-point shot attempt with just over a second remaining in the game. The Hogs were destroyed by Oklahoma State in Stillwater in their next game, but bounced back with their best home-game performance of the season in an 87-68 win over a decent Alabama team.

This 5-1 stretch had the Hogs at 17-5 overall and 6-3 through the mid-point of SEC play, and projected as an 8- or 9-seed for the NCAAT at the time. Strangely enough, the Hogs were 3-1 on the road in league play but only 3-2 at home. The fact they had won each of those 3 road games after falling behind by at least 12 points illustrated their resiliency and mental toughness as a team, as well as their ability to make free throws in volume with great efficiency combined with their bench play having a role in wearing teams down late.

* Arkansas hit rock-bottom to start the second half of SEC play — a 2-and-a-half game stretch that at the time looked to be an NIT-maker, but in hindsight it was the best time to have a few stumbles because there was still plenty of season left to right the ship. It started with a lethargic, pitiful performance at Missouri that resulted in the Tigers’ first win in 14 games, and their first SEC win of the season. Up next was another shocker as the Hogs came out sleep-walking during a 28-4 start-of-game run by Vanderbilt in Bud Walton Arena in a contest the ‘Dores would win convincingly, 72-59. This 2-0 stretch was awful, sending the Hogs’ RPI into the 40s and their NCAAT at-large projections to the thinnest part of the “Bubble.” The most glaring problem was Arkansas’s inability to defend. And, it would actually get worse as the Hogs fell behind by 14 points on the road, again, but this time to lowly LSU, which had only one conference win (over Mizzou at the beginning of league play). After limping to the locker room down 9 points that Saturday night in Baton Rouge, the Hogs found magic in the form of a match-up zone defense — an adjustment that Anderson made at halftime in what was the catalyst of all catalysts in pointing the Hogs toward a winning path again. The Razorbackswould not only stop the bleeding with a 78-70 victory against LSU, but at 18-7 and 7-5 in the SEC they were getting ready to blast off.

* Arkansas would end the regular-season going 6-1, including an 83-76 road win over No. 21 South Carolina (an eventual Final Four club) — a win that effectively was the tie-breaker for third place in the SEC as both teams finished with identical 12-6 league marks. Home wins over Ole Miss (Daryl Macon with a career-high 30 points) and Georgia were routes, a home win over Texas A&M in a close game showed the Hogs’ resolve to tough out a gut-check, a road win over Auburn was fairly easy, and a road loss at 12th-ranked Florida was no surprise.

Over those last seven games, the match-up zone continued to be the Hogs’ best friend (mixed in with their man and pressing schemes), but the Hogs also saw a resurgence in the play of Moses Kingsley at both ends of the floor, more consistent play and production from both Trey Thompson and Dustin Thomas, more of a role from freshman Adrio Bailey, and Jaylen Barford played his best basketball of the season down the stretch. It all conspired for a 23-8 record (12-6 SEC), and it would be the second time in three years that Arkansas had locked up an NCAAT at-large bid heading into the SEC tournament.

* Arkansas went 3-2 in the postseason. It started with wins over both Ole Miss (a 73-72 nail-biter) in the SECT quarterfinals, followed by an impressive 76-62 blowout win over a hot Vandy team that had just beaten Florida for the third straight time to lock up its own NCAAT at-large bid. Arkansas met No. 8 Kentucky in the SECT finals, where after putting up a good fight the Hogs committed some cheap flagrant fouls late that contributed to an 82-65 loss at the hands of Big Blue on Selection Sunday.

The NCAAT field was announced just hours after the Kentucky loss, and Arkansas (now 25-9 overall, 14-7 in SEC games, and RPI No. 28) was slated as an 8-seed in the South Region, where a first-game matchup against 9-seed Seton Hall in Greenville, S.C. was the obstacle for a shot at No. 1 seed North Carolina in the third round. The Hogs, true to so many of their road games in SEC play, fell behind by 8 points as the game-clock slipped under the 10-minute mark in the second half. But that same resiliency and mental toughness — and depth – that salvaged 5 SEC road wins after double-digit deficits came shining through once again, and Arkansas went on a game-closing 23-9 run for a 77-71 victory over the Pirates. Moses Kingsley had his finest game as a Hog, and looked like the SEC Player of the Year: 23 points (10-of-13 FGs), 6 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists, and 1 steal.

Next up was a date with the top-seeded Tar Heels for a chance at the Sweet 16. The North Carolina game looked like a microcosm of the Hogs’ entire season: A rocky start followed by a determined comeback. The Hogs fell behind 30-13 before taking the fight to Carolina in old Hawgball fashion. Battling like warrior poets, the Razorbacks pummeled UNC, 52-30, over the next 22-plus minutes to forge a 65-60 lead with just under 3 minutes to play in the game. Now, what happened over those last 3 minutes was a combination of poor, one-sided officiating that favored UNC and the Hogs running out of steam … BUT, Carolina scored only ONE TIME in that stretch without the aid of questionable/wrong calls or no-calls, so there’s that. Whatever, UNC closed on a 12-0 run for a 72-65 win, ending the Hogs’ season at 26-10.

Any solace, or “what might have been”, or satisfaction for the Hogs and their fans after watching North Carolina scratch out three more close wins en route to their sixth national title? Does the “almost beat UNC” moment encapsulate this season for Razorback nation? Maybe for some, but that’s not my big takeaway from what the Hogs accomplished in this sixth season under Mike Anderson’s watch. What I’ll remember more than anything else is the senior trio – Moses Kingsley, Manuale Watkins, and Dusty Hannahs – at their final press conference in Bud Walton Arena just minutes after winning the regular-season finale against Georgia, declaring that Hawgball was back for good.

And you know what, from this vantage point I’d say they’re right on the money. Next week in this space, we’ll look ahead to 2017-18 as Hawgball and the Fastest 40 attempt to take another step in restoring Arkansas back to national relevance.

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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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