How Did We Get Here?
Mike Anderson hasn’t returned Arkansas to the glory days the Razorbacks enjoyed in the 1990s -- when Anderson was Nolan Richardson’s top assistant — but he’s at least been better than John Pelphrey was. In five years, the Razorbacks have gone 48-40 in the SEC, though they’ve only made the NCAA Tournament once.
Last year was expected to be a massive rebuilding year with Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls gone to the NBA, two seniors graduated, and some offseason shenanigans leading to a contributor being dismissed and another being suspended for a time. Instead, Moses Kingsley emerged as a second-team All-SEC player after two years in Portis’s shadow, and transfer guard Dusty Hannahs was the SEC’s 8th-leading scorer in his first year for the Razorbacks. Arkansas was a somewhat surprising 9-9 in the SEC, though a slow start had the final record at 16-16 overall. But that was still a lot better than a lot of people (myself included) thought they would be.
What’s more, this wasn’t some smoke-and-mirrors job. Arkansas’s 19.6% defensive turnover rate was the lowest of the Anderson era, but the Razorbacks did manage to outscore their opponents in SEC play. That was largely thanks to being the SEC’s best three-point shooting team, along with Anderson’s usual emphasis on not turning the ball over — the Razorbacks had the second-best offensive turnover percentage in the conference (Strangely, in spite of the presence of Kingsley, Arkansas shot just 44.5 percent on twos — largely because the Razorbacks’ guards missed a lot of those).
Still, the haphazard roster might have hurt the Razorbacks by preventing Anderson from deploying his press effectively. Arkansas only had ten scholarship players available, and one of those only played in one game, while Anton Beard missed nine games.
The good news is that while Arkansas suffered some losses in the offseason, the two biggest contributors — Kingsley and Hannahs -- are back this season. Arkansas does have to replace three-point bomber Anthlon Bell and point guard/defensive whiz Jabril Durham, but they still return 56 percent of minutes and 60 percent of their scoring and Win Shares from last year.
What’s more, the Razorbacks have twelve scholarship players available, so the depth issues that hurt the team last year likely won’t be present this year. Mike Anderson has enough bodies to run his press effectively, and that combined with the presence of Kingsley and Hannahs could mean a bounce-back year.
Anderson has recruited reasonably well at Arkansas, though the Razorbacks managed to miss out on Arkansas native Malik Monk last year — in spite of Monk’s family connections to the university. Still, Anderson assembled a recruiting class that ranked 29th in the nation and 5th in the SEC (per 247 Sports) while mining the JUCO ranks heavily. Five players on the roster were ranked as four-star recruits, and all five of those are upperclassmen (though three are new to the team this year). Of the Razorbacks’ twelve scholarship players, nine are juniors and seniors.
This is the SEC’s most experienced team — though, again, four of the nine upperclassmen have never played for Arkansas before. That means that there are still a lot of question marks on this team in spite of the experience level. Arkansas has the talent to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid, but Mike Anderson will need to figure out his rotation pretty quickly for that to happen.
|Jimmy Whitt||17.2||6.1||1.7||1.1||1.0||0.6||0.6||Transfer (SMU)|
|Lorenzo Jenkins||7.0||3.0||2.0||1.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||Transfer (Colorado State)|
|0||Jaylen Barford||6'3"||202||JR.||0.9400||Transfer (Motlow State CC)|
|4||Daryl Macon||6'3"||185||JR.||0.9300||Transfer (Holmes CC)|
Arkansas has a couple of holes to fill in the backcourt with the graduations of Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham, and to replace them, Mike Anderson has brought in two talented junior college transfers. Jaylen Barford is the nation’s top junior college transfer, per 247 Sports, after averaging 26.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 4.7 apg at Motlow State CC. Barford also notched 88 steals in 32 games. Daryl Macon was ranked as the nation’s fifth-best junior college transfer, and averaged 23.9 ppg and also nearly a steal per game at Holmes CC.
Barford might be a perfect fit for Arkansas’s signature pressure defense, which ranked “only” 4th in the SEC in defensive turnover percentage last year. Dusty Hannahs is many things, but he’s not a defensive whiz, and shoring up the backcourt defense was clearly a priority for Anderson. Hannahs transferred in from Texas Tech and clearly spent his year off working on his all-around game.
In two years at Texas Tech, Hannahs was mostly used as a 3-point gunner. In his first year at Arkansas, the 6’3” senior from Little Rock managed to increase his shooting percentage while also attempting about twice as many shots. That made him one of the SEC’s most dangerous scorers — something that most people didn’t see coming.
The other effect of the additions of Barford and Macon is to push Anton Beard and Manuale Watkins to the bench, where they can function as defensive pests. Beard, the 6’0” junior from Little Rock, missed the first nine games last season while serving a suspension but, once eligible, notched a steal per game as Durham’s backup. But the former four-star recruit has seen his development on the offensive end stall, as he shot just 34.8 percent as a sophomore.
Watkins, a 6’3” senior from Fayetteville, is a former walk-on and the son of assistant coach Melvin Watkins; he earned a scholarship with a 4.2 percent steal rate in 2014-15 but that number dropped to 2.2 percent last year as Watkins got more minutes. With a deeper backcourt, expect Watkins’ minutes to decline this year, though he’ll still play a key role as another body to run Anderson’s pressure defense.
On a lot of teams, C.J. Jones, a 6’5” freshman from Birmingham, would probably be buried on the bench. But Jones’ length and athleticism could make him useful to Anderson as a freshman, and with the press requiring a lot of bodies Jones will probably see some playing time as the sixth guard on the team.
|5||Arlando Cook||6'8"||215||JR.||0.9200||Transfer (Connors State CC)|
|13||Dustin Thomas||6'8"||225||JR.||0.9023||16.7||4.4||2.5||0.9||1.1||0.3||0.9||Transfer (Colorado); sat out 2015-16|
Almost nobody saw Moses Kingsley’s breakout season coming. The 6’10” senior from Nigeria went from a defensive specialist averaging 3.6 ppg and 2.5 rpg while backing up Bobby Portis, to an All-SEC player averaging 15.9 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Kingsley was also one of the SEC’s top defenders, ranking third in the conference in rebounds and second in blocked shots. He flirted with the NBA Draft, and now he returns for his senior year — and he’s been tabbed by the media as the preseason Player of the Year.
But there are a lot of question marks surrounding Kingsley in the Razorbacks’ frontcourt. Dustin Thomas, a 6’8” junior from Texarkana, was a role player at Colorado before transferring to Arkansas — where he spent much of his residency year in the doghouse after getting caught up in a criminal matter (the same one that led to Anton Beard being suspended). Thomas will probably team with Arlando Cook, another junior college transfer, at the four spot. Cook averaged 16.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg as a sophomore at Connors State; with Cook, Barford, and Macon, Arkansas has three of the country’s top six junior college transfers according to 247 Sports.
Trey Thompson, a 6’9”, 265-pound junior from Forrest City, Arkansas, will probably be Kingsley’s backup in the middle. Thompson has shown some potential as a rebounder and shot blocker, but has played a limited role in two years at Arkansas due to being prone to both turnovers and fouls.
Arkansas didn’t have much depth up front last year — in addition to Kingsley and Thompson, seniors Keaton Miles and Willy Kouassi were the only players available — but that shouldn’t be the case this year. Brachen Hazen could eventually develop into a stretch 4 but probably won’t play a lot this year. Adrio Bailey is 6’6” and explosive, and could eventually see time on the wing, but both Hazen and Bailey are likely to be strictly depth at this point.
|10/28||Central Missouri (exhibition)||7:00 PM|
|11/4||Emporia State (exhibition)||7:00 PM|
|11/11||Fort Wayne||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/14||Southern Illinois||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/18||UT Arlington||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/22||at Minnesota||7:00 PM||ESPN3|
|11/28||Mount St. Mary's||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/1||Stephen F. Austin||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/3||Austin Peay||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/6||Houston||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/10||North Florida||4:30 PM||SEC Network|
|12/17||vs. Texas (Houston, TX)||1:30 PM||ESPNU|
|12/20||North Dakota State||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/22||Sam Houston State (North Little Rock)||7:00 PM|
|12/29||Florida||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/3||at Tennessee||5:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/7||at Kentucky||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/10||Mississippi State||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/14||Missouri||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/17||at Texas A&M||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/21||LSU||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/24||at Vanderbilt||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/28||at Oklahoma State||3:00 PM||ESPNU|
|2/1||Alabama||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/4||at Missouri||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/7||Vanderbilt||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/11||at LSU||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/15||at South Carolina||5:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/18||Ole Miss||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/22||Texas A&M||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/25||at Auburn||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|3/1||at Florida||6:00 PM||ESPN2|
|3/4||Georgia||1:00 PM||ESPN or ESPN2|
Arkansas is a rare team that’s not playing in an in-season tournament, but the Razorbacks’ nonconference schedule should still be pretty tough. Arkansas plays road games against Minnesota and Oklahoma State, but there are a lot of potential land mines in home games: Houston should be a player in the AAC in Kelvin Sampson’s second year, and Fort Wayne, UT-Arlington, Stephen F. Austin, Austin Peay, North Florida, North Dakota State, and Sam Houston State should all be contenders in mid-major conferences There’s also a “neutral-site” game against Texas in Houston. This schedule shouldn’t be an issue if the Razorbacks are tournament contenders.
The Razorbacks’ SEC schedule gets off to a rough start: in the first eight games, there are road trips to Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, as well as home games against Florida and Mississippi State. With the Aggies, Commodores, and Gators all on the schedule twice, this could be one of the tougher in-conference schedules. There are plenty of opportunities for the Razorbacks to impress the selection committee with this schedule — but also plenty of opportunities for this to go badly if the newcomers aren’t up to snuff.
It’s hard to tell if Mike Anderson is feeling any pressure; the JUCO-heavy recruiting class might suggest that he feels he needs to win now, but then Anderson (like his mentor Nolan Richardson) has made a living off mining the JUCO ranks. Our pool of TSK contributors has the Razorbacks as the sixth-best team in the SEC, but also nobody picked them to finish higher than sixth: suggesting that there’s a pretty big perceived gap between the Razorbacks and the top five in the conference.
Kingsley and Hannahs make for a potent combination, so whether Arkansas can get back to the NCAA Tournament is a question of whether the newcomers can fill in the gaps around them. Jaylen Barford could be the defensive guard that Anderson craves, and Arkansas at the very least has the depth necessary to run Anderson’s pressure system — something they didn’t really have last year.
With nine upperclassmen on the roster, this is the SEC’s most experienced team, so there are no excuses if this isn’t one of the league’s better teams. If all the newcomers jell and Anderson can get some contributions off the bench -- and particularly, if the Razorbacks can force turnovers at the level they’re used to — this is an NCAA Tournament team, and possibly even a challenger for the SEC title. If it doesn’t work, Kingsley and Hannahs by themselves should mean a finish in the top half of the conference and an NIT bid. The experience alone means that this team should have a pretty high floor.