FAYETTEVILLE, Ark — A week’s worth of time is enough to look back at the Arkansas basketball season with some clarity. It’s enough time to look back on Mike Anderson’s entire six years with some level of reason. No emotional reactions. No knee-jerk responses.
The truth of the matter is Arkansas basketball is in the best shape it’s been in 25 years.
Anderson has coached Arkansas to the Razorbacks’ best four-season stretch since 1991-95. One could even argue this past season was the best with Hogs basketball since the NCAA runner-up year of 1995. May be a stretch and some finagling would have to occur, but it could be argued with some amount of legitimacy.
Arkansas went 25-9 and came as close to winning a second-round game as any Razorbacks team has since the last Sweet 16 appearance in 1996. They had two All-SEC players in Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley. Kingsley was an All-Defense selection. They landed two of the best three junior-college recruits in the nation *and* those recruits panned out.
“Really proud of this group. It’s a team that got better as the season went on,” Anderson said. “You never know with some many new faces coming on to a team.”
Everything is pointed in the right direction for Arkansas basketball even after recent success. Things don’t have the look of overnight sensation nor flameout.
Hannahs, Kingsley and Manny Watkins won’t be with the team next year. Their eligibility is exhausted. In their stead come freshmen. Daniel Gafford, a 6-9 forward from El Dorado High; Khalil Garland is a 6-4 guard from Parkview High; and Darious Hall is a 6-6 forward from Mills High. All three are state of Arkansas products.
Anderson said he and the coaching staff are seeking one more to add to the recruiting class, as well. Arkansas spent last season with a free scholarship and his preference would be not to do that again.
Swapping the three seniors for three freshmen alone would mean next year’s Arkansas team probably isn’t as good as this one. None of the three freshmen are known as “scorers.” That doesn’t mean they can’t physically put the ball in the basket. But Gafford has only been playing basketball for a few years. Garland is a combo guard with some potential. Hall can be an elite defender and freakish athlete. But they’re not there yet.
So Arkansas will have to rely on what it returns to make up the bulk of next year’s ability.
Should they stay or should they go?
Those guys are players like Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford and Anton Beard. Those three, all guards, will be seniors in 2016-17. Beard has been on campus since freshman year, starting sporadically the whole time.
But it’s Macon and Barford who carry the heaviest weight of expectation.
They were the team’s second and third-leading scorers this year at 13.4 (Macon) and 12.8 (Barford) points per game this year. Macon is the shooter, the “clutch” guy who literally won Arkansas a couple of games with his performances in late minutes. Barford is the slasher, able to make ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot and go on runs all by his lonesome. Together they would make up maybe the best backcourt in the SEC next year. Everything else could be built around them.
Remains to be seen, however, if they will, in fact, be back.
Odds are strong, yes, they will. Barford hinted as much after the team’s NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina last week.
We gone be back. We HOGS.??? pic.twitter.com/2bUZUcfHx8
— By Any Means. (@Jbarford1) March 20, 2017
Macon seems somewhat less likely. He hasn’t said anything publicly about leaving but he offered a “no comment” when asked about the future following the UNC game. And the draw of professional basketball, NBA or otherwise, is something very real to him, he said in an interview earlier this year.
“I try not to think about leaving or entering the draft, but obviously it’s my dream to become an NBA player,” Macon said in February.
If you were to place a bet, bet on their return. Just don’t take out a second mortgage to do it. Michael Qualls was thought to be returning as close as two days before he announced he was leaving, too.
Whatever happens, happens
Anderson will be equipped for whatever the outcome. Even when he lost Qualls and Bobby Portis early to pro basketball two years ago, he kept things at least stable with a .500 record.
Those are the realities of college basketball. Anderson did a heck of a job in breaking even with that basketball team, especially considering all the other off-court stuff.
He shouldn’t have to deal with that this year. Other than Macon and Barford, most everything else seems in good shape.
And that’s why, with the return of those two, Arkansas basketball can officially be called “back.”
“I anticipate everybody to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Anderson said. “That is staying put and trying to get better.”