By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - Having just on their emotional Senior Night Tuesday at Walton Arena upending the SEC-leading Auburn Tigers, the Arkansas Razorbacks know they enter from the wrong side of Senior Night against the Missouri Tigers Saturday night at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.
Former Mizzou coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks (21-9, 10-7 in the SEC) and first-year Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers (19-11, 9-8 in the SEC) conclude their regular season at 5 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
Arkansas sported seven seniors gushing emotion, including senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon attaining membership in Arkansas’ 1,000-points club off just in their second season as junior college transfers.
The auld lang syne atmosphere apparently inspired freshman center Daniel Gafford of El Dorado to play one of his greatest games. Gafford compiled a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds along with seven blocked shots during the Razorbacks’ 91-82 victory over Auburn.
Arkansas dropped Auburn into a 12-5 first-place tie with Tennessee going into Saturday’s SEC season swan song before the league starts anew with next week’s SEC Tournament Wednesday through Sunday in St. Louis.
Saturday’s clash in Columbia is hugely important to each team’s bid for a better seed in the SEC Tournament, including for the Razorbacks a possible double bye beyond Wednesday and Thursday’s play-in games into Friday’s quarterfinals of the 14-team single elimination tournament.
However for Arkansas, ahead of playing for SEC Tournament seedings, and more importantly, improving NCAA Tournament seeding and beyond dispute assuring a NCAA Tournament bid, the Razorbacks must cope with Senior Night inspiration, as Mizzou bids adieu to Jordan Barnett, Kassius Robertson and Brett Rau.
Rau, a walk-on, has only played nine games this season, but Barnett and Robertson are integral parts to Mizzou’s team and showed it back on Jan. 13 when Arkansas eked a 65-63 surviving Missouri missing the game’s last shot.
A guard, Robertson scored 26 points with eight rebounds, while Barnett double-doubled with 12 points and 10 rebounds and dished three assists.
Robertson actually has already graduated and not from Mizzou.
He’s a graduate student transfer from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., but certainly has been adopted by the Mizzou faithful, leading the Tigers with a 16.6 scoring average.
Four-year Mizzou letterman Barnett, lettering the last three seasons under former Mizzou coach Kim Anderson, is a Mizzou mainstay, averaging 13.9 points and 5.9 rebounds.
“Robertson has become a tremendous player for their basketball team,” Anderson said. “Their leading scorer, Barnett, now he’s shouldered a lot more responsibility. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere.”
An atmosphere likely so electric that it would be no shock to see the Tigers jump on Arkansas early.
“You know the emotions are going to be running high,” Anderson said. “I think you just have to withstand that first five minutes, man, the first flurries. The punches are going to be come. You have to be able to withstand it and eventually you’re going to have to play basketball. That’s the biggest key there, just being poised, and that’s where your leadership has to step in.”
Actually much of the pregame hype hasn’t been so much on Mizzou’s as on a Mizzou freshman.
Michael Porter Jr., 6-10, was considered perhaps the premier prospect in the country and certain to be one-and-done NBA bound when Martin signed him.
However, he injured his back just two minutes into their season opener in November.
Porter hasn’t played since, but was cleared to return practice this week and likely won’t be requesting a redshirt since the NBA scouts will want him long before his collegiate eligibility clock expires.
Still, Martin doesn’t want any undue risk to Porter’s NBA future by playing him Saturday if he’s not fit.
“Well, the bottom line with that is, this (Thursday) will be Mike’s third real practice outside of two shootarounds before games,” Martin said on the Kevin Wheeler radio show.
"He’ll have a practice Friday. Then we’ll make a decision, I guess Friday night or Saturday if Mike’s ready to play.”
Anderson was asked at his press conference Thursday in Fayetteville if he prepares his Razorbacks like Porter will play against them.
“We prepared for them when they came here (in January) like he was going to play,” Anderson said.
“So it’s no different. He’s a tremendous basketball player. He’ll be, I’m sure, impactful on their team. But we’ll prepare like we prepare for everybody else.
“It’s the last game and we just have to go do the things that we do.”