Arkansas basketball’s slow return to national relevance has hit a snag.
The Razorbacks (10-7, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) are struggling in coach Mike Anderson’s eighth season in Fayetteville, losing four straight league games over the past two weeks. A third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament is in serious jeopardy as a young roster led by potential NBA first-round draft pick Daniel Gafford tries to find its footing when it hosts Missouri (10-6, 1-3) on Wednesday.
Anderson didn’t make excuses after Saturday’s 84-67 road loss to Mississippi . He said his team’s “confidence has been kind of shattered” by a handful of close losses and it’s time to get tough, figure things out and win some games.
“I think that’s one of the difficult things with a young basketball team, but that’s the hurdle we’ve got to get over,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to get to the point where we learn how to win. Take advantage of momentum. Take advantage of the things that we have.”
Among the things the Razorbacks do have is a star in the post in the 6-foot-11 Gafford. He is averaging 16.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and two blocks per game, but his scoring production has dipped during conference play. He scored just nine points in the loss to Ole Miss.
Freshman Isaiah Joe has also been a bright spot, averaging 14.5 points and shooting nearly 44 percent from 3-point range. But like Gafford, he hasn’t been at his best during conference play.
Joe said consistency is the biggest issue. So is defense: The Razorbacks are giving up more than 82 points per game in league play, which ranks last in the SEC.
“We’ve just got to keep our focus for the duration of the whole game,” Joe said. “We play in spurts and we need to play for 40 minutes. Not in 20-minute increments, not in 4- or 5-minute increments. We’ve got to play solid the whole game.”
The regression has been frustrating for a fan base hungry for a return to the national elite. The Razorbacks were one of the country’s best programs in the early 1990s, winning a national championship under coach Nolan Richardson in 1994.
The hiring of Anderson in 2011 — who was a top assistant under Richardson during those great years — was supposed to be a big step toward re-establishing that success. He took UAB to a surprise run to the Sweet 16 in 2004 and led Missouri to 31 wins and the Elite Eight in 2009.
For a while, it looked like Arkansas was on the same trajectory. Anderson won 27 games in 2015 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago, the Razorbacks won 26 games and made the second round of the Big Dance again.
Since then, the program has slowly slipped. Arkansas was bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the opening round last year and won’t make this year’s field without a considerable late-season rally.
If Anderson is panicking, he’s not letting it show. Even after Saturday’s fourth straight loss, he seemed adamant that the Razorbacks have what it takes to bounce back.
“A lot of basketball left,” Anderson said. “It’s still a race.”