FAYETTEVILLE - The coming so close to advancing past top-seed Final Four bound North Carolina in the second round of the South Regional may never cease frustrating Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, but its pain is eased taking stock of the Razorbacks’ 26-10 season.
Anderson said as much Monday reviewing his Razorbacks’ SEC third-place 12-6 finish followed by advancing to the SEC Tournament championship game and finally finishing in the round of 32 at the NCAA Tournament defeating Seton Hall and leading North Carolina by five late before losing 72-65 in the South Regional’s second round game at Greenville, S.C.
Arkansas’ season seems all the more impressive since the teams finishing ahead of them in the SEC, SEC regular-season/SEC Tournament champion Kentucky and SEC runner-up Florida, both concluded their season’s at the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, while South Carolina, tied for third with Arkansas in the SEC but seeded fourth in the SEC Tournament because Arkansas beat the Gamecocks head to head in Columbia, S.C., advances to Saturday’s Final Four in Phoenix.
Nationally basketball belittled, the SEC made the national pundits look foolish with its five entrants going 11-4 in the Big Dance while Frank Martin’s Gamecocks can sing “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and the chance to win it all.
“I am happy for Frank and happy for them and it tells you the strength of our league,” Anderson said. “They finished fourth in our league and they are in the Final Four. That says a lot of our league right there.”
And Arkansas certainly did its SEC part.
“ I thought this team still played some really good basketball and so to see it end against a very good North Carolina team, the way it did, it’s kind of disheartening,” Anderson said. “But at the same time thought we surely saw this team make basketball relevant here at the University of Arkansas across the nation. And we also are seeing it being relevant from a SEC standpoint. Three teams in the Sweet Sixteen with a fourth one that should have been there. But all we can do is learn from it and grow and go to the next level.”
Anderson credited the team’s three seniors, center Moses Kingsley, and guards Manny Watkins and Dusty Hannahs, for leading the Hogs all season, particularly during a rough patch when the Hogs lost 3 of 4.
“When we had some adversity take place I thought our guys learned from it,” Anderson said. “I commend our seniors. We were 17-7 but you’d have thought we were 10-10 or something. But our guys didn’t listen to the noise.”
Replacing 6-10 center Kingsley literally is the tallest order.
Trey Thompson, the 6-9 senior-to-be from Madison via Forrest City, gets first shot. He was both Kingsley’s backup and often accomplice sharing the power forward spot with fellow seniors-to-be Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook.
“I think it's Trey's time,” Anderson said. “He really came on for us big time. Now the dedication that he put into this summer has got to continue next summer. He's a senior now and I think he wants to be that guy.”
Look for Daniel Gafford, the 6-11 incoming freshman phenom from El Dorado to fit into the big man picture, too.
“ He's a shot-blocking machine, rebounder extraordinaire and he can really run the floor,” Anderson said. “He won't back down from anyone. He can score on the block. He can come out on the floor and guard a guard and guard a forward. I like his toughness.”
Darious Hall of Little Rock Mills is another highly recruited forward joining sophomore forwards Adrio Bailey, Brachen Hazen, Thomas, Cook and Thompson in various roles up front while incoming freshman guard Khalil Garland of Little Rock Parkview helps cushion the absences of Hannahs and Watkins.
Sophomore-to-be C.J. Jones could take up some of outside shooting slack that Hannahs leaves behind. Senior-to-be point guard Anton Beard of North Little Rock will be asked more than ever to blend leadership with explosive senior-to-be, second-year to be junior college transfer guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon.
If Macon returns. A noncommittal “no comment” regarding the Razorbacks’ future when asked in the postgame hurt of the Arkansas loss to North Carolina even as he scored a team-leading 19 points, has created questions if Macon, previously at Holmes (Miss) Community College, might go pro rather than return to Arkansas.
However, though only scoring seven points against Seton Hall, Little Rock Parkview grad Macon was so thrilled to be part of an Arkansas NCAA Tournament victory that he said postgame: “Man, that was the best game I’ve played all year as just far as excitement. This is exactly why I came back to my state. I’m a Razorback for life.”
Anderson said he will meet individually with all his Razorbacks just back off last week’s spring break and expects all to return.
“I anticipate everybody continuing to do what we’ve been doing staying put and just trying to get better,” Anderson said. “I anticipate them being here.”