The No. 7-seeded Razorback men’s basketball team (23-12, 10-8) did not know it was about to play its last 40 minutes on a court this season March 16 in Detroit. Yet, that’s exactly what happened following the Hogs’ upset loss to No.10 Butler, 79-62, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Hogs heard the buzzer blare for the last time and had to watch another era in the Mike Anderson-led years come to an end, as the main core of the program will not return to Bud Walton Arena next season.
“In one sense, you say you were disappointed,” Anderson said. “You want to see your players advance and continue to play good basketball. This game here wasn’t how we [have been] playing. We just didn’t make shots.”
Butler’s one-two punch of senior forward Kelan Martin and sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin scored 51 combined points to roll past the Hogs, whose own scoring duo in senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon only managed 27 points together.
“It was a great season,” Macon said. “We got back where we wanted to be, which was the tournament. I can't thank (Anderson) enough. He gave us a chance to show our true talents.”
The Hogs began the season on a strong 11-2 run and comparisons to the 1994 national championship team soon began to arise. Wins against the University of Connecticut, University of Oklahoma, University of Minnesota and Tennessee only furthered the discussion of Anderson possibly having the best team he’s had since arriving in Arkansas. One national ranking later, and the Hogs suffered four losses over the next five conference games, seemingly caught off guard by the depth and parity of the Southeastern Conference.
The Hogs, per usual, did not impress outside of Bud Walton Arena, finishing with a 3-7 road record. In the end, the Hogs managed to finish the conference season with one win above .500 and turned some heads in the conference tournament by convincingly beating Florida, 80-72, before being eliminated by Tennessee in the semifinals.
Anderson has led the Hogs to the “Big Dance” three times in his six years coaching, but this was his fastest exit with the Hogs in all those attempts. It wasn’t a disappointing season by any means, but the conclusion to the year came at a much more premature time than most imagined at the beginning of the season back in November, when the Hogs’ style of play and early results enamored fans in a way they haven’t been for years.
Hopes were high for this team, and many thought this might be the year the Razorbacks finally made a run into the Sweet 16.
Anderson still has many years left at Arkansas after signing a contract extension at the end of January that would keep him on the Hill through 2022. However, this particular era of Anderson’s creation has come to an end. All-SEC First Team guard Barford, All-SEC Second Team guard Macon, four-year veterans Anton Beard and Trey Thompson and two-year transfer forward Arlando Cook will all walk.
“[The seniors] have done some great, great things with our program,” Anderson said. “I think people recognize we had some talented individuals and a really good basketball team. I think it just continues to set things up for the future.”
Fortunately for Anderson and the coaching staff, freshman forward and NBA prospect Daniel Gafford announced March 26 he was going to return for his sophomore season. A team without Gafford next season would by no means be the worst team in the SEC, but the lack of experience and leadership would have put the Hogs in a tough spot.
Having a bonafide star and future top-10 draft pick in the big man leading the way could make the Hogs much more intimidating and help the young Razorback team in the wins column.
“The NBA might be in my future,” Gafford said in a video posted to his Twitter page. “But Fayetteville, Arkansas, is where it’s at. I’ll be back again for another year playing in Bud Walton for you guys. Woo pig.”
Gafford will be joining four other returning players who saw playing time this season: freshman forward Darious Hall, freshman forward Gabe Osabuohien, sophomore forward Adrio Bailey and sophomore guard C.J. Jones. The starting lineup will be severely gutted by next fall and might consist of several incoming freshmen, of which the Hogs have six enrolled for next season.
On the bright side for Razorback fans, the 2018 recruiting class is ranked No. 26 nationally by 247Sports and features two four-star recruits in forward Ethan Henderson and guard Keyshawn Embery. The rest of the class features three-star recruits, including heavily recruited forward Reggie Chaney, and guards Jordan Phillips, Desi Sills and Isaiah Joe.
The Hogs will also debut sophomore guard Jalen Harris, who transferred this year from New Mexico but had to sit out the year per NCAA rules. Freshman guard Khalil Garland also had to sit out because of a heart problem and is expected to suit up in the cardinal and red next year.
Until then, it’s time for Anderson regroup once again to build and prepare a squad with no seniors to compete in a league that comes off of arguably its most competitive year in basketball.