Late-season push has Arkansas on track for NCAA tourney
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Mike Anderson always believed this year’s Arkansas team had the talent to take the program to the NCAA Tournament for a third time in the last four seasons — even after a loss at LSU a month ago left the team two games under .500 in the Southeastern Conference.
As has been the case in recent seasons, the Razorbacks recovered from their mid-season lull with a late-season flourish. Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 SEC) has won six of its last seven games heading into Saturday’s matchup at Missouri, with Tuesday’s victory over No. 14 Auburn all but assuring the school of its return to the postseason.
The winning stretch was long overdue in the eyes of many who had watched the Razorbacks vault into the rankings following an 11-2 start to the season. Regardless, it’s come when Arkansas needed it most — and put the school in the position of playing for NCAA seeding heading into next week’s SEC Tournament.
“They’re playing as well as anybody in the league right now,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
Following their win over the Tigers, the Razorbacks were 27th in the NCAA’s RPI ratings and somewhere in the range of a NCAA tournament 6- or 7-seed by most projections. That’s a long way from where they were following the Feb. 3 defeat at LSU that left Arkansas 15-8 overall and 4-6 in the SEC.
Since then, the Razorbacks only defeat is a home loss to Kentucky last week. They had won four in a row before the loss to the No. 23 Wildcats , and they’ve won two more since — including a road win at Alabama and the home win over Auburn.
“We knew we were going to come together and start winning some games, we just didn’t know when it was going to happen,” Arkansas senior guard Daryl Macon said. “I can truly say it happened at the right time toward the end of conference play.”
Among Arkansas’ wins this season are four over ranked teams at home, the first time the Razorbacks have done that in program history.
They’ve enjoyed success thanks in large part to the return of Macon and fellow senior Jaylen Barford. Both helped Arkansas reach the NCAA Tournament last season before a loss to eventual national champion North Carolina in the second round.
Barford is second in the SEC in scoring with an average of 18.1 points per game, and Macon is fourth at 17.3 The duo is also at the top of the league’s 3-point leaders, with Macon hitting 44.3 percent and Barford 43.7 from behind the arc this season — a key reason why the Razorbacks are the top 3-point shooting team (40.4 percent) in the SEC.
It’s the arrival of freshman Daniel Gafford, however, and his late-season surge that has led to Arkansas’ recovery from its slow SEC start. The 6-foot-11 forward put together his finest performance in the win over Auburn, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while also matching his career best with seven blocks.
Gafford added seven dunks for good measure, bringing his season total to 65 and raising field-goal percentage to 60.3 for the season.
“Daniel is a big presence down there, blocks shots, runs the floor like a deer,” Barford said. “He just dunks everything, tries to dunk everything. It’s crazy how athletic he is.”
The late-season run has become standard operating procedure for Arkansas during each of its NCAA Tournament seasons under Anderson. The Razorbacks won eight of their final 10 games during Bobby Portis’ final season three years ago, and they matched this year’s run with six wins in seven games to close out last season.
“This team is playing some good basketball at the right time, and that’s one of the things we always build our teams for — this time of the year,” Anderson said
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Kurt Voigt on Twitter at @Kurt_Voigt_AP