Razorbacks riding high as Hilltoppers come to town
FAYETTEVILLE — NBA scouts are expected to flock to Bud Walton Arena today to see a battle of two top big men in college basketball.
Arkansas (6-1), of the Southeastern Conference, is back at home after earning a convincing 98-74 road victory on Wednesday in Fort Collins, Colo., against Colorado State (4-5), of the Mountain West Conference.
The Razorbacks will host the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (4-4), of Conference USA, today at 2:30 p.m. The game will be televised by the SEC Network (Resort Channel 79).
Arkansas features Preseason All-SEC sophomore center Daniel Gafford, of El Dorado. Gafford is averaging 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds with 15 blocks in 14 games.
“It’s going to be a tremendous matchup,” said Arkansas head men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson. “I mean, two big guys that are really mobile and agile. I think Daniel’s got to continue to do the things he’s been doing. Be hard to guard.”
Western Kentucky features freshman MaxPreps All-American Charles Bassey, of Nigeria, via St. Anthony’s High School in San Antonio and Aspire Academy in Louisville, Ky. Bassey averages 13.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game with 19 blocks in eight games.
“He’s got a big-time motor and has a great pair of hands,” Anderson said. “He can score. He’s a very, very talented kid. Very talented. But to me, it’s not going to be just about those two guys. It’s going to be about Western Kentucky versus Arkansas.
The Razorbacks returned only Gafford, junior starting forward Adrio Bailey as a semi-regular starter last season and sophomore reserve forward Gabe Osabuohien as scholarship players from last season’s 23-12 team. Anderson’s Razorbacks rank among the surprises of the young season with six straight wins after a season-opening loss.
Rick Stansbury is only his his second year as head coach at Western Kentucky, but he was a former longtime head coach at Mississippi State and was most recently the top assistant at Texas A&M for Billy Kennedy.
The Hilltoppers may not seem so imposing coming off of an 84-78 loss to the Missouri State Bears (4-5), out of the Missouri Valley Conference, in Springfield, Mo. Their other losses have come at Washington (6-3), of the Pac-12; Indiana State (5-2), of the Missouri Valley Conference; and against Central Florida (6-2), of the American Athletic Conference, on a neutral court at the Myrtle Beach Invitational in Southern California. Western Kentucky defeated Valparaiso (5-4), of the Missouri Valley Conference, and Big 12’s West Virginia (5-3), in Myrtle Beach.
Stansbury added Bassey to a team that went 27-11 last
season and made the semifinals of the NIT in New York.
“Their record might not indicate how good a team they really are,” Anderson said. “They’ve played a tough schedule. They’re a very good basketball team
“Coach Stansbury, someone we are very familiar with at Mississippi State and then he was at A&M as associate head coach and he’s got some tremendous players over there. It’s an experienced team, versus our team, which is an inexperienced team. It’s going to be about wills and tempo and who can get the tempo to their liking.”
Taveion leads the Hilltoppers in scoring with 17.3 points per game. He is shooting 14 of 32, 43.8 percent, on 3-pointers.
Small forward Jared Savage ranks second on the team at 14.1 points per game. Bassey is the team’s third-leading scorer.
Arkansas is familiar with Western Kentucky’s fourth-leading scorer, graduate transfer guard Desean Murray. The graduate transfer from Auburn scored 15 points against the Razorbacks in an 88-77 victory for the Tigers last season in Auburn, Ala.
Murray only scored three points when Arkansas won, 91-82, in the SEC rematch at Bud Walton. He is averaging 10.9 points per game this season.
Anderson said Colorado State was too determined to stop Gafford inside that the Rams left the perimeter open for Arkansas’ guards. Sophomore Mason Jones hit 4 of 8 3-pointers to finish with 16 points, freshman Isaiah Joe was
4-for-9 on threes and finished with 14 points, and freshman Keyshawn Embery-Simpson scored a career-high 14 points on 4-for-5 shooting from distance off of the bench.
Reserve forwards Osabuohien and freshman Reggie Chaney got it going for the Hogs inside as Gafford sat for the final 8:07 of the first half with two fouls. Gafford scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. Chaney scored
11 points in 19 minutes and Osabuohien finished with five points and five boards in nine minutes.
Anderson said he was impressed with how Arkansas made 28 assists out of 38 field goals. Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris dished out a dozen assists against just two turnovers.
“More and more, he’s taking command out there,” Anderson said. “Twenty-eight assists on 38 field goals. That’s trusting one another.”