FAYETTEVILLE — Debuting defeating three good basketball teams at home, the Arkansas Razorbacks travel clear to Portland, Ore. to play their first three games on the road.
Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks are part of the 8-team Phil Knight Invitational starting for Arkansas at 4 p.m. Thanksgiving Day on ESPN2 against the 2-0 Oklahoma Sooners at the Moda Center and continuing Friday against either nationally ninth-ranked reigning national champion North Carolina or the homecourt advantaged University of Portland and after Saturday’s off day concluding Sunday against an opponent from the other bracket that begins Thursday with Michigan State vs. DePaul and UConn vs. Oregon.
“A great field at this time of year,” Anderson understated. “Every team we are going to play is really, really good.”
Though No. 4 Michigan State ranks the highest of the assembled, there is none that the Razorbacks likely would want to play more than North Carolina. Arkansas had the Tar Heels on the ropes in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament before the combination of a controversial call and the Tar Heels’ savvy enabled them to prevail and go on to win the national championship.
Is a possible Friday match with the Tar Heels on their minds, media available Razorbacks Trey Thompson, the senior forward and Forrest City High grad, and Daryl Macon, the senior guard and Little Rock Parkview alum, were asked?
“Coaches want to take it one practice at a time and one game at a time and not let North Carolina beat us against Oklahoma Thursday,” Thompson said. “We know Oklahoma is a good ballclub. So we are taking it one game at a time, but the matchup will be fun if we get there.”
Macon surmised “Our focus is on Oklahoma, not North Carolina.”
It better be, Anderson asserts, noting the first game of a tournament obviously opens with the utmost importance. Especially against these Lon Kruger coached Sooners, a nearby by Big 12 vs. SEC rival, and an impressive 2-0 team identically vanquishing 108-89 the University of Omaha and Ball State.
For their two games, the Sooners, like Arkansas receiving votes in the latest AP poll, have four starters and their sixth man averaging double-scoring figures.
Freshman point guard Trae Young not only leads the scoring, 18.5 average, but averages an incredible 11.5 assists.
“Leading the nation in assists so he’s a big-time player,” Anderson said. “I tried to recruit him. Great vision, handles the basketball. He has the (shooting) range of Daryl Macon, can put it on the floor. Just real crafty with the ball. Just real heady.”
Sooners starting 6-9 big men Khadeem Lattin, a senior, and freshman Brady Manek average 14.0 and 13.5 points with 6-6 guard Christian James averaging 13.5 points and 6-10 sixth man forward Matt Freeman averaging 10.0.
“They’re averaging 108 points a game,” Anderson said. “They run, especially on rebounding.”
Of course running and scoring is what Anderson’s Razorbacks, 95-56, 101-73 and 83-75 victors over good Samford, Bucknell and Fresno State teams expected hotly to compete for their various conference championships, thrive upon.
Senior Arkansas guards Jaylen Barford, Macon and North Little Rock’s Anton Beard average 20.3, 16.0 and 13.3 points while 6-5 sophomore leaper Adrio Bailey has impressed on both ends of the court.
Off the bench, none has responded so spectacularly as Daniel Gafford, the 6-10 freshman from El Dorado averaging 16.7 points and 5.0 rebounds after flogging Fresno State with 25 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
Thompson, 6-9 and averaging a team leading 6.7 rebounds, and Gafford both have encountered early-season foul trouble.
So especially for these three games in four days the Razorbacks welcome off disciplinarily suspension activating 6-8 senior forward Dustin Thomas for experienced depth.