FAYETTEVILLE - If Daniel Gafford’s game vanished in thin air, presumably the Razorbacks vanish with him.
That was the consensus 2018-2019 preseason presumption of coach Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team returning only Gafford, the 6-11sophomore preseason first All-SEC center from El Dorado, semi-regular starting junior forward Adrio Bailey and sophomore reserve forward Gabe Osabuohien actively on scholarship from last season’s 23-12 team.
Well, it seemed Gafford’s first-half game against the Colorado State Rams did vanish in the nearly mile high 5,003-foot altitude air Wednesday night at Fort Collins, Colo.
With the Razorbacks coming out shooting threes for a 12-2 opening lead and Gafford seldom touching the ball before getting benched by two quick fouls with but two points on free throws for his first-half scoring, it seemed his game did vanish in thin air.
Yet Arkansas led 44-33 at half.
Gafford’s 10 second-half points gave him 12 for the game with nine rebounds, just missing a double-double. That effort supported Mason Jones, who led Arkansas with 16 points along with a career-high 14 points off the bench by freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson in Arkansas’ 98-74 victory at Colorado State.
That’s just part of Arkansas’ show on the Fort Collins road.
Starting freshman guard Isaiah Joe scored 14 points. Every game starter Bailey scored 10 with six boards and blocked two shots. Starting sophomore point guard Jalen Harris dished 12 assists against just two turnovers and scored eight.
Off an Arkansas bench outscoring the Rams reserves 38-7, freshman forward Reggie Chaney, his 19 minutes just three less than Gafford’s 22, scored 11 points with eight boards while blocking two shots. Freshman reserve guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro produced eight points and two assists in 16 minutes.
And in just nine minutes, sophomore reserve forward Osabuohien, “just a warrior out there,” Anderson asserted, produced five points and five rebounds.
So no, Gafford said Thursday in Fayetteville, just as he did after his 23 points were subordinate to Joe’s 34 in the preceding 121-89 victory over Florida International last Saturday at Walton Arena, and as he saw on Twitter before last Wednesday night’s game, the Razorbacks don’t revolve around him and him alone.
Far from it, he said not with false modesty, but sincerity.
Gafford said Anderson advises him to stay off Twitter but the sophomore confessed, “I saw a tweet about how this man said, ‘This is not just a Daniel Gafford team.’ I agree with him. This is not just me on this team. We have a whole list of players that are capable of doing a lot of great things here at Arkansas. Going down the stretch, every single one of the players on this roster are going to show people great things.”
Seems most did Wednesday night alone.
It was asked if the Hogs coming out nailing threes without Gafford touching the ball early played into him opening not in rhythm and committing those two quick fouls.
“I really don't even worry about getting the ball,” Gafford said Thursday before the Razorbacks for their 2:30 p.m. Saturday game at Walton against Western Kentucky. “I just basically let the game try to come to me. I don't try to go take it.”
When he sees teammates taking them and making them, Gafford willingly becomes helper and decoy more than scorer.
“With them making shots, that's what they're supposed to do,” Gafford said. “If they get the ball inside to me, then I'm going to find the person that's hot. So if they were going to pass it to me, then I was going to find the next shooter because them hitting those threes in the beginning to where they were getting hot, that showed they were ready to come out and play.”
As for his limited first-half minutes, Gafford said it wasn’t just foul trouble creating his time on the pine. His game really was vanishing in thin air.
“What also took me out of my game, the air was so thin up there,” Gafford said. “My chest, it was real heavy, so I had to get used to that gym a little bit more.”
Six Razorbacks reserves contributing 66 productive minutes variously spelling starters Harris, Joe, Jones, Bailey and Gafford, periodically had to come up for thin air.
“They were gasping for air,” Anderson said. “Their chests were burning with that altitude. That’s the best our bench has played. It was important that those guys come in there and give Dan and Adrio and Jalen Harris and Mason and Isaiah, give them some rest.”
Gafford sure appears to need it.
Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky’s 6-11 freshman center, is a McDonald’s All-American bringing a nearly double-double at 13.8 and 9.6 scoring and rebounding averages against Gafford’s 18.7 and 8.7.
“He's a really good player,” Gafford said. “So I'm going to have to come out with my A-game and pretty much any other big that's on our bench is going to come out and be ready to play against him.”