The winds of change that swirl about the Arkansas football program have thankfully compelled us Hog fans to focus an even sharper eye on the basketball team, which is clearly re-energized after the 2016-17 team cruised back to the NCAA Tournament and won an opening-round game against Seton Hall before succumbing to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Three valuable seniors — Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs and Manuale Watkins — all left town after that brief but encouraging run. But Mike Anderson had a tremendous returning core to lean on, and so far the leadership of guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, along with the heavily improved play of Anton Beard and C.J. Jones, has led the hardcourt Hogs to an 8-2 start, with the defeats occurring away from home in a rematch-gone-sour against Carolina and then a mysteriously flat and terrible showing at Houston.
The wins have been good, though. While in Portland, the Hogs bookended the loss to UNC with a well-played win over Oklahoma and a 35-point bombing of onetime power Connecticut. Arkansas also whipped a couple of other potential tourney teams, Bucknell and Fresno State, and really unloaded on Top 15 Minnesota at home.
In all eight wins, freshman phenom Daniel Gafford has had at least one dunk. And boy, does he like dunking. It's no wonder the Razorbacks are a singularly better team when the El Dorado product is on the floor. He's a transcendent talent who is already remarkably polished for a true freshman post player, with a soft touch but impressive strength. His shot-blocking and rebounding skills are beyond reproach for a teenager, and if he can avoid foul trouble, he's easily the best Razorback interior asset in a good while.
Arkansas figures to need Gafford to mature at an even greater clip once SEC play commences with a home tilt against Tennessee on Dec. 30. The conference's reputation has sagged in recent years with some questionable coaching hires and Kentucky's oppressive dominance leading to a watering-down of the rest of the league. That's no longer the case, as the Volunteers are among four currently ranked SEC teams and all of the outliers but Vanderbilt are also above .500.
It's a much harder league up and down, and so this year, an 11- or 12-win campaign within conference play might be suitable for a 4 or 5 national tourney seed rather than an 8 or 9. Arkansas would love to validate the strength of its recruiting and its in-state talent by getting to that level or beyond. Barford, ironically, is the key, and he is one of the few on the roster who arrived in Fayetteville without some tie to the state. He's pouring it in to the tune of 20 per game, and giving the opposing guards hell with his perimeter defense, and it feels like he's been here all four years rather than two after transferring.
Anderson has the best team he's assembled in seven years on the job as a direct result. He is giving the program what it long needed, a deep and athletic roster, a solid connection to in-state prospects, and a style of play that resonates with fans. The Hogs bottled up Troy by 25 in their annual game at Verizon Arena on Saturday night, and it was a lively sellout crowd that piled into North Little Rock's venue. Everyone enjoyed the outcome and the path the Razorbacks took there — it was a game where frenetic pace and crisp offense was on full display, and it accordingly enticed everyone. Now if the Hogs can do more of this, and consistently, throughout an upcoming SEC slate, things are looking great, not only for the season underway but the ones on the immediate horizon. The nucleus is as good as it has been, and Anderson's steadiness through some lean and frustrating years has yielded dividends.