FAYETTEVILLE - The Arkansas Razorbacks and Tennessee Volunteers relish their starts yet start all over at high noon today on SEC Network television at a sold-out Walton Arena.
Coach Rick Barnes’ nationally 19th-ranked Volunteers rolled 9-2 through their nonconference campaign including eye-catching victories over Big Ten power Purdue and ACC members Clemson, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest and lone losses to No. 1 Villanova and No. 7 reigning national champion North Carolina.
Other than a major mishap routed by Houston at Houston and a loss to North Carolina, Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks rolled, 10-2 nonconference including administering the lone defeat to 10-1 12th-ranked Oklahoma and routing then 14th-ranked Minnesota and also routing perennial power UConn. Of all the teams not in the Associated Press top 25, the Razorbacks are the top vote-getters and an unofficial 26th in the country.
But Saturday they tip off at Square One, 0-0 in the Southeastern Conference in this SEC opener for both teams.
“Everybody is in first place,” Anderson said Friday going into today’s slate of SEC openers. “Opening Saturday SEC play, Arkansas vs. Tennessee, that says it all. Tennessee obviously with a lot of returning players from last year and you’ve got a Hall of Fame coach in Rick Barnes. They are playing outstanding basketball. You look at their records and who they played. They’ve been tested.”
The Razorbacks know Tennessee is good but believe they are, too.
“They might be ranked but they’ve got to come to Bud Walton,” Arkansas senior forward Dustin Thomas said after Wednesday’s game.
Between the Razorbacks playing so well for themselves and their fans to feed off each other, Walton Arena has brought back exciting memories of the championship portions of the Nolan Richardson championship era when first Barnhill Arena and then 17,000-plus Walton Arena rocked full tilt.
Fans packed Walton for the Razorbacks rout of Minnesota and even with the students away on Christmas break drew 11,000-plus on a cold Wednesday night for California State-Bakersfield, a virtual no-name around these parts.
“It’s going to be a sold-out crowd, I saw on social media already,” Arkansas senior guard Daryl Macon of Little Rock Parkview said after Wednesday’s game. “So it’s going to be a great experience. Another great opportunity.”
So far the Razorbacks, with six seniors and five of them starting, have played like Anderson’s most experienced team since his 2011-2012 return to Arkansas as head coach after assisting Richardson’s Razorbacks from 1985-2002.
And it certainly blends new with old as 6-11 freshman starter Daniel Gafford of El Dorado already has caught attention as among the nations’ best rookies. It’s also his deepest team with a bench allowing Anderson to play the constant pressure, fatigue producing defense he prefers and coached so well at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri prior to Arkansas teams that won 27 games in three seasons ago and 26 games last season.
At his Thursday press conference in Knoxville, Tenn., Barnes was asked if these Razorbacks remind him of any team the Vols have faced this season.
“No,” Barnes said. “They remind me of a Mike Anderson team. That's who they remind me of. When I think of getting ready for them, it's just the way Mike's team plays. Hard, aggressive. They try to turn you over and try to keep constant pressure on you, switching defenses to see if you can adjust to it. … They really get down the floor quick offensively.”
Barnes’ teams play uptempo, too. Does that modify running with the Razorbacks?
“I think you have to play the way you play,” Barnes said. “You'll have a game plan and how you want to do things and I think we've got to keep building on what we do and how we do it.
Transition will be a major defensive key, as it is in every game up to now. They're really good at coming at you hard and aggressive. They'll try and turn you over with some of their … the same way we've tried to get down the floor and try get people at certain times. They do it probably more often than us there. But they'll be down the floor most of the time just trying to mess with you a little bit. We've got to be who we are and get better at it.”
Sophomore 6-7, 241-pound power forward Grant Williams, voted SEC Preseason SEC second-team, leads the Vols averaging 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.
“He’s an outstanding player,” Anderson said. “A double-double waiting to happen.”
Williams and has plenty of help from two athletic 6-5 starters, 238-pound forward Admiral Schofield, 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, and 185-pound guard Jordan Bowden, 12.0 points and hitting nearly 62 percent on threes (26 of 42) while point guard Jordan Bone, 66 assists, “runs the show,” Anderson said.
Led by guard Lamonte Turner and junior college All-America Chris Darrington off the bench, Barnes goes deep in personnel, too. He has employed at least nine players every game.
While depth may not to be up to Arkansas’ customary advantage, rebounding, Tennessee out-rebounds its opponents, 416-394 hole Arkansas has been outrebounded 429-424, rides with the Vols.
“Tennessee is a tremendous offensive rebounding team,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to keep them off the boards, especially the Williams kid.”