FAYETTEVILLE - Sometimes you don’t want to be right.
Because sometimes thoughts you know will prove right are wrong for your best interests, just as Mike Anderson predicted for his younger Razorbacks.
For though during Arkansas’ 10-2 nonconference start 6-11 freshman Daniel Gafford of El Dorado had become an integral starter while freshman swingman Darious Hall of Little Rock Mills and shooting guard C.J. Jones, a sophomore barely above freshman experience considering his limited playing time last season, had done big things off the bench, Anderson predicted they would experience a harsh new world opening the SEC season.
Arkansas opened its SEC slate last Saturday overcoming and then holding off the 19th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, 95-93 in overtime before a capacity 18,696 at Walton Arena.
All did experience a harsh, new world though Gafford ruled in the second half. Gafford overcame his first-half tormentors to be a key 15 points/eight rebounds/five blocked shots factor.
“As you get into conference play we know the sense of urgency,” Anderson said during Friday press conference. “It goes up 10 notches. The guys who have been here, it’s easier for them to understand and imagine what’s going to take place. For the younger guys it’s going to be an eye-opening for them.”
Even playing a tough nonconference schedule, which Arkansas did, doesn’t replicate a conference game, Anderson said Friday.
“The physicality is going to come now,” Anderson said. “The younger guys already know the speed of the game, they have a sense of that, but now they are going to understand the urgency of it. That loose ball that you are reaching at, two or three guys are diving at it. They’ve got to have that understood.”
Hall, so athletic defensively and scoring 11 and 14 points his last two outings against Oral Roberts and California State-Bakersfield, committed three turnovers Saturday in a nervous three first-half minutes. Anderson glued him to the bench for the second half.
Mainly because senior guard Jaylen Barford had to overcome first-half foul trouble to achieve his stellar 28 points while fellow senior guard Daryl Macon scored 33, Jones had to play 13 minutes.
While Jones did score one athletically impressive bucket, the sophomore shooter went 0 for 3 on treys and missed his only two free throws.
For this game Anderson survived the Hall and Jones’ jitters.
But an effective Gafford, the coach had to have in the second half. Arkansas trailed 38-31 in the first half with Gafford just 1 for 3 from the field and just two rebounds while knocked around by shorter but older wider bodied Tennessee big man Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
The second half Gafford gave as good as he got and then some including the thunder dunk for Arkansas’ lone lead (73-72) in regulation.
“I thought Daniel got his first taste of SEC basketball,” Anderson said during Saturday’s postgame. “We talk about the sense of urgency how it goes up a couple of notches. The first half you could see, it’s one thing to hear but it’s another to play against it. I just thought the nerves were going on. In the second half he was much more comfortable and I thought he played big for us.”
So did Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes.
“I think he’s good,” Barnes said. “I think throughout a 40-minute game you're going to see guys adjust to what's going on. They've got to learn to adjust to officiating. They've got to adjust to how they're being guarded, how the scouting report reads on them.”
Gafford not only battled Williams, 12 points and six rebounds and two blocked shots, and Schofield, 16 points and seven rebounds, he outlasted them. Williams fouled out late in regulation. Schofield fouled out in overtime.
Gafford logged the last of his 33 minutes with four fouls and helped open the perimeter and driving lanes for Barford, Macon and senior guard Anton Beard, 10 points.
Barford and Macon appreciated Gafford’s second half help after helping the rookie through his first half.
“I think it’s just a learning process for Daniel,” Barford said. “I know he struggled in the first half because he wasn’t used to that physicality. He had Williams and Schofield banging him, so it just took encouragement and keep pushing because he is a young freshman. That second half he really helped us out a whole lot. He got blocked shots, deflected shots, getting great rebounds and the dunk to actually put us up one in the last minute. He pulled it out for us today.”
Macon foresees much more to come from the freshman phenom.
“He has so much potential I don’t even think he knows it,” Macon said. “To have a big like that, it takes a lot of pressure off us. We can just throw it down and trust him to go to work.”