Information and analysis on Arkansas players involves contributions from college basketball freelance writer and researcher Nathan Giese.
This story will touch on the situation at the University of Arkansas' basketball program, but the longer arc of hoops history at Vanderbilt in the 21st century forms the lead-in to the reality faced by the Razorbacks.
Vanderbilt fans probably aren't shedding many tears for Kevin Stallings. The man did an entirely respectable and solid job for VU basketball if the whole of his career is to be considered. One can only imagine what Eddie Fogler might have done with the Commodores had he stuck around for another decade and carved out a tenure with considerable longevity, but that didn't happen. With Stallings, VU fans were able to see a career unfold in full, for better or worse.
The better moments were not insignificant. A few Sweet 16s put Vanderbilt in the thick of the national conversation for brief periods of time. Stallings never did lift the Commodores to the No. 3 seed Fogler produced in 1993, but he came close, nabbing a few 4 and 5 seeds. His 2012 team won the SEC Tournament, and it did so by beating a juggernaut John Calipari team at Kentucky. Those achievements should not be wiped away from the historical memory. Stallings deserves a certain amount of credit for what he brought to Memorial Gym.
However, those feats -- as impressive as they were -- don't stand as tall as they could or should have, because the follow-up acts never raised standards higher.
The 2012 team will always have the SEC Tournament title, but it owned the talent to be the Final Four threat the 1993 team was.
If Stallings deserves credit for several productive seasons in Nashville -- and he does -- he also bears the weight of having never maxed out with his best teams from the early part of this decade. The John Jenkins-Jeffery Taylor-Lance Goulbourne-Festus Ezeli-Brad Tinsley years not only failed to produce a seed higher than 4 or any trip to the Sweet 16; those years generated only one NCAA Tournament win.
It is true that many very good coaches -- and some great coaches -- have gone through extended periods of NCAA Tournament suffering. However, even among those coaches who didn't make the Final Four, they achieved a higher level of consistency to the point that their floor was elevated, even if the ceiling of their accomplishments remained lower than they hoped. Great coaches without a Final Four still managed to be very productive on an annual basis. They might have fallen off the map for one or two seasons, but they regularly bounced back in a way which demanded attention.
We never got to see what Fogler would do in a 15-year period of time, but we did with Stallings... and this is where his career fundamentally fell short.
The salad days of the Stallings era (2010-2012), as fun as they were, did not raise the NCAA Tournament floor for the program. They then gave way to a period of slumps and stagnation. A productive tenure over a decade long had run its course. Change was needed. A program needed a new voice if it was to raise that floor in the future.
Welcome to Arkansas basketball in 2018.
Mike Anderson has had six trial runs at Arkansas before this, his seventh season. This was supposed to be the year in which Arkansas took "the next step," the move Vanderbilt was supposed to make in 2012 with a relatively ripened roster. Anderson's ceiling in Fayetteville is similar to Stallings' at VU: a 5 seed and second-round exit in a 5-4 Round of 32 game (to North Carolina in 2016). Stallings at least got to the Sweet 16, but he didn't return there in nearly a full decade of coaching since 2007. Anderson is still waiting for his first Sweet 16 with the Hogs.
Fine, Arkansas fans probably told themselves after last season's near-upset of North Carolina in March. As long as this promising season lives up to its possibilities and raises the floor for the program, we'll be okay.
Arkansas started well in November, decisively outplaying Trae Young and Oklahoma and offering legitimate indications it was ready to evolve. The Hogs outfought Tennessee in the SEC opener on December 30. Arkansas entered 2018 with a never-say-die attitude and tenacity of Mike Anderson's best teams in Birmingham and CoMo, the same basic characteristics developed by Anderson's beloved mentor, Nolan Richardson.
The Arkansas blueprint was finally in sight, much as Vanderbilt fans could realistically imagine what greatness looked like in the high points of the 2011-2012 season.
2017-2018 Arkansas has not followed Vanderbilt's path in that 2011-2012 campaign -- no, the Hogs have been markedly worse.
While 2011-2012 Vanderbilt could not get to the second weekend of March Madness, Arkansas might not get to play a second game in the SEC Tournament the way it is playing right now. Yes, a win over South Carolina earlier this week stopped the bleeding, but Arkansas got shredded by Texas A&M and -- more distressingly -- LSU in the two contests before that one.
Arkansas is probably still more likely than not to make the NCAA Tournament, but the Hogs have some work to do if they want to wear home whites as the higher seed in round one. They would probably wear visiting red if the field was selected today. Arkansas has moved in the wrong direction in a season of considerable consequence. Fatigue is setting in among the fan base, and it is hardly excessive or severe to question -- seven seasons into a tenure -- if Anderson is watching his last, best chance at restoration pass him by in Fayetteville.
It happened with Stallings in 2012, much as it did for another coach that season: Frank Haith of Missouri. Once his Tigers lost in the 2-versus-15 upset to Norfolk State, they never recovered.
As Vanderbilt and Arkansas prepare for Saturday night's game, we have a situation in which Arkansas will likely make the 2018 NCAA Tournament, while Vanderbilt will not (barring an SEC Tournament run akin to what Arkansas and Richardson pulled off in the year 2000).
Yet, which team would you rather root for right now?
Phrased differently, which program seems to have more of a future in the next few seasons?
It's not an easy answer, but with Bryce Drew's recruiting prowess beginning to emerge, one can easily make the argument that VU has a brighter horizon... while the sun sets on Arkansas' prime period, the program's best chance to make a dent in the SEC and reemerge on a national level as it did two decades ago under Richardson.
Vanderbilt fans know what it is like to be in the shoes of an Arkansas fan this season.
That's why, even though this year has not been a joyride in Nashville, the awareness of the Razorbacks' struggles will make Saturday's contest an occasion to look at the big picture... and build hope for the future of Vanderbilt hoops.
Here is a look at Arkansas' notable players:
Jaylen Barford: Barford is a deadeye shooter from three-point range, connecting on 45 percent of his 125 attempts this season. He’s done a lot of damage in the transition game this season, where a good chunk of his points have come from. Barford has also done well in just about every other offensive area, leading the team with an 18.8 points per game average. He is, however, a subpar free throw shooter, hitting just 67 percent of his attempts.
Defensively, Barford is good-but-not-great. He has average percentiles in most of the big areas but is below average on spot-up jumpers.
Daryl Macon: Averaging 17.3 points per game, Macon is also a very good three-point shooter, hitting 43 percent of his attempts. He’s also a much better shooter at the line than Barford, making 101 of his 115 attempts. That's not a typo -- with a high shot volume, he has just 14 missed free throws all season. He leads the team with 96 assists and is second in steals with 28. There isn’t an offensive area Macon lacks in ability this season. He has probably been the team's best player over the past two weeks.
Opponents are hitting just 32 percent of their attempts with Macon as the primary defender. Macon’s best work has come in pick-and-roll situations, limiting the opposition to just .57 points per attempt.
Daniel Gafford: Gafford is hitting over 60 percent of his shot attempts this season and leads the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. Post-ups, cuts and offensive rebounds are where his shots are coming from, which isn’t surprising with his 6-foot-11 frame. He has 44 blocks and hit just 50 percent of his free throw attempts.
When opponents have gotten Gafford away from the hoop, they’ve had great success scoring against him. When he’s at the rim, it’s much harder to do. Pretty cut and dry. Given the evolution of basketball into a smaller-bodied pace-and-space game with creatures known as stretch fours, this makes Gafford more limited on defense than he could or should be. Arkansas' recent defensive performances further reinforce the idea that Gafford is not giving this team a complete defensive presence. Given the defensive chops of some of his teammates, Gafford isn't providing the same shutdown level of performance.
Anton Beard: Many of Beard’s attempts have come in transition but he has converted on just 41 percent of those attempts. He’s a 28-percent shooter from three and a 78 percent shooter from the foul line. Beard has come up with 21 steals and dished out 71 assists.
On defense, Beard is very good at defending jumpers and decent in most other areas.
CJ Jones: He has yet to start a game for the Razorbacks but gets a solid amount of time on the floor. He’s a consistent three-point shooter, hitting 38 percent of his 88 attempts, and an 83-percent free throw shooter, though he has just 18 attempts on the year.
Jones is holding opponents to just 21 percent shooting on spot-up shots and 28 percent overall. He’s a persistent defender who can cause problems, which makes him the kind of player Anderson wants on his roster.
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