By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - The SEC besting the Big 12 six games out of 10 in last Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge isn’t the only indicator of improving SEC men’s basketball.
The Texas A&M Aggies that the Arkansas Razorbacks (15-6 overall, 4-4 in the SEC) visit at 8 p.m. tonight on ESPNU TV at A&M’s Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, document the continued SEC surge that started in earnest last season.
The preseason pick to win the conference by SEC media, A&M looked every bit as promised and then some breezing through an 11-1 November-December non-conference campaign ranked fifth in the country, including victories over West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Pepperdine and Southern California
Add A&M’s Big 12/SEC Challenge loss last Saturday at Kansas and coach Billy Kennedy’s once 11-1 Aggies are only 13-8 overall because they are 2-6 in the SEC.
What happened? Obviously a tough SEC is one factor, but not the only factor.
“You’ve got to remember, they had a lot of guys in and out whether it be guys hurt or guys being suspended,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said Monday. “Now it just seems they’re starting to get all those pieces together. They’re a very good basketball team and College Station is not an easy place to win.”
Until losing their last SEC game by eight at LSU and then losing 79-68 at seventh-ranked Kansas, the Aggies had recently played now No. 21 ranked Kentucky to a 74-73 loss in Lexington, Ky., and rebounded from a 13-point loss at No. 15 Tennessee to win SEC games in College Station over Ole Miss and Missouri.
When healthy, as they apparently are now, the Aggies’ all juniors frontline of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, both 6-10, and D.J. Hogg, a 3-point shooting threat at 6-9 who has made 42-of-105 treys, is generally deemed the league’s best.
All three can score, 14.4, 12.1 and 10.4 are the Davis, Hogg and Williams scoring averages. All rebound. Williams (9.8), Davis, (8.8) and Hogg (6.1) clean the boards as does their top backup, 6-10, Tonny Troche-Morelos averaging 8.2 points, and 4.9 rebounds, and 6-4 starting guard Admon Gilder, 11.4 points and 4.1 rebounds.
“They’re a team that size is their biggest advantage,” Anderson said. “They shoot it and go get it. And we’ve go to be able to rebound by committee. We’ve got to be able to defend.”
The Razorbacks are led by senior guards Jaylen Barford, averaging 18.8 points, and Daryl Macon, utilized off the bench more than most starters averaging 16.6 points and named SEC Player of the Week Monday after his 25 and 22 points led the Razorbacks’ 80-77 double-overtime SEC victory last Tuesday at Georgia and in last Saturday’s 66-65 Big 12/SEC Challenge victory at Walton Arena over Oklahoma State.
Obviously, the Hogs count on them.
But against A&M’s big lineup it seems paramount that Anderson’s big men, 6-11 freshman starter Daniel Gafford of El Dorado, 6-9 senior alternate and Forrest City High grad Trey Thompson, and rotating forwards Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook, 6-8, and 6-7 sophomore Adrio Bailey, excel.
Thompson, a bulky 265, closed Arkansas’ narrow escapes at Georgia in Athens and Oklahoma State in Fayetteville by blocking Georgia’s last shot and rebounding Oklahoma State’s last inside shot.
“Trey always has had that knack,” Anderson said. “Being in the game at some of those pivotal moments, we’re seeing him use the size he has. He’s one of those guys that creates space. He’s got a great feel for the game.”
Thomas hit 4-of-5 shots at Georgia then grabbed a career high 10 rebounds against Oklahoma State while scoring nine points with three assists, three steals and a blocked shot.
“I thought he was active in all phases of the game,” Anderson said of Thomas’ performance against Oklahoma State. “He played 25 minutes of efficient basketball.”
Gafford had so excelled scoring and on the boards and defensively in Arkansas’ loss at Florida and victory over Ole Miss to be named SEC Freshman of the Week, but went scoreless with just three rebounds at Georgia and was foul-plagued ineffective until the last against Oklahoma State.
That last was huge, tipping in Beard’s miss with 16 seconds left for what proved to be the 66-65 game-winner.
“He sat there (playing only 14 minutes because of foul trouble) and all of a sudden now you’re in when it’s really, really significant,” Anderson said. “I’m hoping that’s big for him. Hopefully that’ll get him more ready as we go down this stretch here.”