Samford won 20 games last year.
The exhibition season is gone and now the games are for real as Arkansas opens the season tonight in Bud Walton Arena against Samford.
The game will tip at 7 p.m. CT and the opponent will be anything but a cupcake. They won 20 games last year for the first time since 2005-06. Samford, which won its first postseason game in school history last season against Canisius in the 2017 College Insider.com Postseason Tournament, 78-74, will return a predominant portion of last year's roster in 2017-18, including all five starters.
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson was asked if the tougher opponent to open the season was by design or what?
"You look at whether it be college basketball, football it does not matter," Anderson said. "Baseball, teams can play, everybody has scholarship players. Transferring of players to certain programs these teams are just as good. If you lined up talent on talent some of these teams are just as good. So you can't look at the names."
Samford is picked to finish second in the Southern Conference behind Mercer. Arkansas only had nine scholarship players during the exhibition season. Has anything changed with senior forwards Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook (suspensions) or freshman guard Khalil Garland (medical)?
"The ones we played in the exhibition games those guys will be playing," Anderson said. "Cook is still out. Dustin Thomas, we know he's not playing and Khalil. So the guys who played in the exhibition game will move forward. As I said our bench is gonna have to really come on for our basketball team. In the exhibition games those guys played a lot of minutes and they'll probably play a lot of minutes in the regular season as well. Again, I think we're really looking forward to putting different combinations out on the floor that's gonna make things difficult for Samford."
Only having nine players does that affect how much you press?
"The press, obviously we want to disrupt," Anderson said. "But I think there's different ways. You can still play fast. You can still play half-court defense and play fast. So it doesn't necessarily have to be the pressing style. I thought we were one of those teams last year. We didn't press as much last year and I think we averaged almost 75. I don't know how many points we averaged, but there were nights where we shot it well and our defense was really good. We scored, scored in the 80s.
"But as I said, once we get people in this building here, we obviously want to get our fans involved, and there's a style of play that excites fans here. And not only excites the fans, but excites us, too. And if we're doing the things that we're supposed to do — and that is causing disruption — the pace can speed up. I'm sure Samford will want to control the tempo. They play a lot of zone, so it's a game where we're going to have make shots. But more importantly we're going to have to defend."
In the exhibition games, Anderson started Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard, three seniors, at guard with senior Trey Thompson and sophomore Adrio Bailey inside. Will it be that lineup again or have you figured that out yet?
"I have not," Anderson said. "We've got a couple practices between now and then and we'll go from there. The same guys started in the exhibition games, then I think the second half of the last exhibitor game I think we changed it up a little bit. We'll see that'll be determined here in the next couple practices."
A promising player for the Razorbacks is freshman Daniel Gafford from El Dorado. What are your expectations for Gafford in his first game?
"In terms of Daniel, just continue to progress," Anderson said. "That’s all I want him to do, come out and do the things he’s been doing in practice. I always talk about taking your practice to the games. That hasn’t changed. I want him to come out with the understanding of bringing your practice to the game. You don’t have to do anything spectacular. If you do that, then we’re going to be okay."
After several weeks of practicing against each other, a Red-White game and two exhibition contests how ready is this team to play for real?
"I think our guys are ready to play somebody," Anderson said. "They're tired of beating up on each other. They're tired of hearing me just chomping on bit and getting on them about certain things. It gets kind of monotonous and starts getting physical and real testy. We had a practice on Monday and it was probably one of our most physical. I'm talking about guys were just kind of going at each other. I was just happy to get out of that practice with nobody going down. So hopefully they are ready to go and play someone other than themselves. Of course, it's that time of the year. The season opener."
In its two exhibition games, Samford fell to Western Kentucky 78-64. They bounced back to beat Spring Hill College 95-60. They are coached by former Kentucky player Scott Padgett. They love to shoot the 3-pointers and Anderson is aware of what the Hogs need to do tonight.
"It's a team that can really shoot the basketball and if you look at some of the stats from the exhibition we didn't do a very good job of guarding guys on the perimeter," Anderson said. "Of course that's gonna be our main objective to run guys off the 3-point line and keep them off the glass as well. I'm more interested in what we are doing defensively and creating some havoc making it difficult for a very good Samford team coming in."
Arkansas has won 43 straight home openers, including a 24-0 record in Bud Walton Arena. In 15 years as a head coach, Anderson's teams have never lost a season opener and have an average margin of victory of 16.5 points.