Mike Anderson, of all people, should know well the value of premier junior college talent. The Arkansas head coach went to Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, Ala., before Nolan Richardson plucked him away for two years at Tulsa, then Anderson rejoined Richardson on Tulsa's coaching staff.
Richardson, of course, won a national junior college championship at Western Texas in 1980 before taking the reins at Tulsa. As Richardson endeavored to rebuild an Arkansas program that was in tatters after Eddie Sutton crawled to Lexington, it wasn't just his infiltration of the Memphis high school scene that facilitated that rebirth. He sprinkled in role players who transferred to Fayetteville, namely the likes of Lenzie Howell, Roger Crawford and Robert Shepherd.
Anderson was so convicted in his belief that he needed to secure in-state high school talent that he might've overlooked the fact that in his first, largely undistinguished five years in charge of the program, one of his best all-around players was a guy named Coty Clarke. He wasn't a superstar, and for the two seasons he manned the wing, the transfer from Lawson State Community College in Alabama wasn't able to nudge the Razorbacks into the NCAA Tournament — they did so the year following his graduation with a solid 27-9 campaign — but his quiet leadership was obvious. He was a bit of a throwback to the aforementioned Howell, who was a standout for two highly accomplished seasons (1988-89, 1989-90) after arriving from San Jacinto College.
With there being rising skepticism about whether Anderson could get the kind of results here that Arkansas fans craved after a decade of ineptitude from Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, the coach went back to the two-year college route and secured three of the top six JUCO guys in the nation. Arlando Cook's interior impact has been a little limited thus far, but Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford's work in the backcourt is a reminder of just how invaluable it can be to have the short-term but ready-made production of transfers on your team.
Macon was a Little Rock Parkview product who needed to head to Holmes Community College in Mississippi and promptly delivered a couple of All-American seasons there. Barford came out of Jackson, Tenn., with tremendous hype and ended up at Motlow State, where he similarly excelled. The two have fairly similar skills and builds — both stand 6'3" and are more scorer than shooter — and they're throwing in a healthy 22 points combined per game through the Hogs' 8-1 start.
It was Barford who may have performed the earliest rescue work of the young season when he keyed a big 20-2 second-half rally against Texas-Arlington, which promptly reeled off seven straight victories and took down Texas and No. 12 St. Mary's in that stretch. His 17-point effort was a season best, and he also had six rebounds and three steals in the win, overcoming some of his own gaffes (six turnovers) to be the kind of sparkplug that was needed after the Mavericks slugged the Hogs straight in the jaw over the first 15 minutes of that game.
Macon's turn to hit 17 came last week against Houston, which is the likely American Athletic Conference favorite, and he did it in a very efficient and timely fashion, dropping in three of his four three-point tries and shooting only nine shots from the floor and five from the line. It's that kind of measured but impactful play that Macon was enlisted to provide, and so far he's handled it with aplomb. When conference play starts in earnest, he's going to likely need to loosen the reins on his shot, because he's logging over 20 minutes per game and yet has only attempted double-figure shots twice in the first nine contests.
The virtue of what both players are doing is seen in the third shooting guard's numbers. Dusty Hannahs is an evolved and less flaky version of onetime appointed program savior Rotnei Clarke. Last year, the rounded nature of Hannah's game was such a surprise that even with the team sliding to 16-16 at the end, there was lingering optimism behind because Hannahs had been so consistent that he could even flourish more with support. And that belief has been borne out, as after he placed in double figures in 28 of 32 games last season, Hannahs has started his senior year by hitting at least 11 points in all nine games, and doing more on-ball defensive work and penetrating the paint at the other end.
In other words, this backcourt trio appears to be complementing each other masterfully, and that kind of quickly-forged chemistry cannot be understated in a sport where any two players may be fortunate to play more than around 25 games together. As a result, there are strong odds that Arkansas reaches Christmas with an 11-1 record if it can preserve its ongoing surge against Texas in a neutral-site game Saturday and then against North Dakota State and Sam Houston State back in Fayetteville next week.