Rebuilt Razorbacks surging toward NCAA Tournament return
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson would have preferred senior Dusty Hannahs keep his postseason speculation to himself following an 85-67 win over Georgia on Saturday.
That said, Anderson wasn’t about to chastise the sharp-shooting guard for his excitement after the Razorbacks (23-8, 12-6 Southeastern Conference) all but locked up their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.
“Dusty’s Dusty,” Anderson said. “He always wants to say something that I probably told him not to say, but I think he was feeling good.”
Hannahs and his teammates had every reason to feel good following the win. Not only was it the sixth in their last seven games, but it capped a late-season surge that came only after their NCAA Tournament hopes appeared lost following back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt last month.
The strong finish, which included a win at South Carolina, was enough for Arkansas to secure the No. 3 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament.
It also helped ease the frustration of a fan base still reeling from a 16-16 record a year ago — one that feared the Razorbacks would miss the NCAA Tournament for a fifth time in six seasons under Anderson.
“Last year was really tough, and then we had a stretch this year where I’m sure some of you all threw out tweets that said we were dead in the water,” Hannahs said. “Look at us now. That’s how I’m feeling.”
Following last season’s disappointment, Anderson brought in seven new players with hopes of a quick return to the postseason. It was a signing class highlighted by a trio of top junior college players, most notably guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. The juniors have been at their best as the regular season has wound down, with Macon scoring a career-high 30 points in a win over Mississippi and Barford averaging 17.8 points over his last six games.
Combined with stalwarts like Hannahs and preseason SEC Player of the Year Moses Kingsley, Arkansas appears to have found ideal team chemistry at the right time.
“A lot of times you’re going to be as good as your guards, and our guards are playing really good right now,” Anderson said.
What the newcomers have also brought is depth to a roster that a year ago was missing former SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, among others.
That depth has best shown itself this season in the second half of games. Using Anderson’s pressure style, especially by its guards, Arkansas has outscored opponents by a total of 197 points in the second half of games this season — compared to only a two-point first-half edge.
“For these guys, and our core guys, to put it all together ... I think we’re starting to play some of our best basketball at the end,” Anderson said. “That tells me commitment on their part; they’re committed to each other.”
More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25