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How far can Daniel Gafford carry Arkansas?

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The Razorbacks are frighteningly inexperienced entering 2018-19.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Detroit Practice Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Mike Anderson seems to have found a nice cruising altitude at Arkansas. After going 18-14 and 6-10 in the SEC in his first year, over the last six years, the Razorbacks have gone 64-44 in the SEC and made three NCAA Tournaments. In the last five years, Arkansas has finished 44th, 29th, 73rd, 35th, and 44th in KenPom. As college basketball goes, that’s pretty remarkable consistency.

Still, 2017-18 felt like it should have been better. With six seniors on the roster, Arkansas got off to a sluggish start in SEC play before finishing 8-3 to get a 7-seed in the tournament — only to get drilled by Butler in the first round. Anderson has mostly gotten Arkansas back to being a pretty consistent NCAA Tournament team, but getting beyond that has been a challenge — the Razorbacks haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1996, which is a hell of a drought for a program that had made the second weekend six times between 1990 and 1996.

And now, Arkansas is starting over... for the most part. The Razorbacks return just 19.5 percent of their possession-minutes from 2017-18, and one player — Daniel Gafford — accounts for 13.3 percent. Arkansas in 2018-19 will be Daniel Gafford, a borderline lottery pick who chose to come back for his sophomore season, surrounded by what’s basically a completely new team.

Unlike the other SEC team that’s losing a ton (Texas A&M), Arkansas is rebuilding mostly with freshmen. There are a couple of transfers in here, but it’s a roster with no seniors, one junior, four sophomores, and eight freshmen. There’s probably going to be more upside with this approach than there would be patching over holes with graduate transfers and JUCOs, but in the near term, the Razorbacks could struggle. On the other hand, they do have one of the best players in the SEC, which is worth something.

Backcourt

Entering 2018-19, Arkansas doesn’t have a single guard on the roster who’s played a minute for the Razorbacks — and just one who’s played Division I basketball at all. The 6’2” redshirt sophomore* (Arkansas’s official roster lists him as a junior, but unless I’m missing something he’s a sophomore) played 20.6 minutes per game as a freshman at New Mexico, averaging 4.5 ppg and 2.3 apg. Another sophomore, 6’5” Mason Jones, averaged 15.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg last year at Connors State College.

Aside from those two, Arkansas is going to be relying on freshmen. 6’3” point guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson was the highest-rated recruit in the group, but a pair of in-state talents — 6’5” Isaiah Joe, from Fort Smith, and 6’2” Desi Sills, from Jonesboro — might be the biggest reasons for excitement. In Arkansas’s exhibition game against Tusculum on Friday, Joe started alongside Harris and Jones and led the team with 18 points.

Arkansas also has 6’5” redshirt freshman Khalil Garland, who missed last season due to a heart condition and still hasn’t been medically cleared to play.

Frontcourt

It says something about what the NBA Draft has become that 6’11” sophomore Daniel Gafford was thought to be making a mistake in coming back to college after averaging 11.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 2.2 bpg as a freshman, while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. But he’s coming back to a team on which he will be the first, second, and third options, rather than a player who had to defer to senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. And the vast majority of players in that position who elect to return to college don’t end up hurting their draft stock all that much. Last year, everybody pointed to Miles Bridges, who fell from being a top-five pick all the way to... the 12th pick. Big deal.

Gafford is easily the team’s best player, but unlike in the backcourt, Arkansas does actually have some returning players up front. 6’6” junior Adrio Bailey started 16 games last season, averaging 4.1 ppg and 2.5 rpg. Figure on Bailey starting alongside Gafford. 6’8” sophomore Gabe Osabuohien played just 136 minutes last season, but unlike a couple of players who played more minutes — C.J. Jones and Darious HallOsabuohien elected not to transfer out of the program and should see his minutes increase.

Here, too, freshmen will play important roles almost by default. The best of the group is probably 6’8” Reggie Chaney, who averaged 13.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg at Findlay Prep last year. He’ll be joined by a pair of in-state products in 6’8” Ethan Henderson and 6’10” Ibrahim Ali. Henderson was the state’s top-rated recruit out of Little Rock Parkview. Ali is more of a project but has good size at 6’10” and 244 pounds.

On the wing, 6’7” Jordan Phillips has been held out of practice so far due to a knee injury but could be in line for playing time once he’s recovered.

Schedule

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
10/26 Tusculum (exhibition)
11/2 Southwest Baptist (exhibition)
11/9 vs. Texas (El Paso, TX)
11/12 UC Davis
11/18 Indiana
11/21 Montana State
11/23 UT Arlington
12/1 Florida International
12/5 at Colorado State
12/8 Western Kentucky
12/15 vs. UTSA (North Little Rock, AR)
12/19 Georgia Tech
12/22 Texas State
12/28 Austin Peay
1/5 at Texas A&M
1/9 Florida
1/12 LSU
1/15 at Tennessee
1/19 at Ole Miss
1/23 Missouri
1/26 at Texas Tech
1/29 Georgia
2/2 at LSU
2/5 Vanderbilt
2/9 at South Carolina
2/12 at Missouri
2/16 Mississippi State
2/20 at Auburn
2/23 Texas A&M
2/26 at Kentucky
3/2 Ole Miss
3/6 at Vanderbilt
3/9 Alabama

Arkansas’s nonconference schedule starts out tough, with a neutral-site game against Texas to open the season and Romeo Langford’s Indiana team coming to Fayetteville in the third game. After that, however, the schedule lightens up considerably. Not counting the road trip to Texas Tech in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, just four of Arkansas’s 12 nonconference opponents start the season in the KenPom top 100, and just two of the 12 games are outside the state of Arkansas. This appears to be just about the easiest schedule the SEC office will allow.

In SEC play, Arkansas draws Ole Miss, LSU, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt twice each. That’s pretty manageable: Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Missouri are all in a similar boat to the Razorbacks, while LSU and Vanderbilt are young, if talented.

Outlook

This is a difficult team to get a read on. Arkansas is incredibly young, and by and large, all the freshmen on the roster are the type of players who’d be hidden on the bench for a year or two at most programs — but with so little experience, most of them will be thrown into the fire right away. It’s a strategy that could pay off in a couple of years, but for now, this is a frighteningly inexperienced squad. Mike Anderson’s string of six consecutive seasons finishing at least .500 in the SEC appears to be in jeopardy; so, too, is his run of two straight NCAA Tournaments, and three of the last four.

On the other hand, Arkansas also has one of the most talented players in the country in Daniel Gafford, who was a difference-maker on the defensive end as a freshman and will look to add to his offensive game as a sophomore. Gafford, by himself, could be good enough to keep the Razorbacks in the game on most nights.

My overall read on Arkansas is that this is probably going to be a rebuilding year, but the bottom won’t completely fall out on them — thanks mostly to Gafford and Mike Anderson. A good guess is something like 6-12 or 7-11 in the SEC, with an overall record padded by a light schedule in December.