COLUMBIA — It's been a confusing start to the season for Arkansas basketball.
The Razorbacks are 11-5 and played a challenging non-conference schedule, beat Oklahoma on a neutral court and Minnesota at home, but lost by 19 points to North Carolina and by 26 to Houston.
Mike Anderson has one of the best teams he's had in Fayetteville and Arkansas started Southeastern Conference play with a 95-93 overtime win at home against a surprisingly good Tennessee team.
But for the second straight year, the Razorbacks have started conference play 1-3, following up their win against the Volunteers with a two-game road losing streak, by three points to Mississippi State and by 11 to Auburn, before getting smacked around by LSU in Bud Walton Arena and scoring a season-low 54 points in a 21-point loss.
The Missouri Tigers likely are unclear which version of Arkansas will show up at 5 p.m. today — the team that scored an average of 90 points per game in non-conference play and gave up 73 points per game or the team scoring 75 points and allowing 83.5 points through four conference games.
"I'm looking forward to our guys improving upon the performance we had the other night," Anderson said in a press conference ahead of today's game. "That was not the typical Razorback performance, and we vow to make sure that people see the real Razorbacks play when we play Saturday."
Arkansas had a first-half shooting performance against LSU similar to the one the Tigers (12-4, 2-1 SEC) had Wednesday against Georgia, but were not so lucky to be playing a team encouraging a rock fight. LSU outscored the Razorbacks 41-21 in the first half and shot almost 40 percent better from the floor, and the two teams traded baskets in the second half.
ONE THING IS guaranteed in today's game, which will be televised on ESPN2: Arkansas will push the pace and try to get as many possessions as possible. That's Anderson's style of basketball, along with full-court pressure after a made basket, and the Razorbacks force opponents into 14.6 turnovers per game with nearly half of those coming on steals.
The Tigers and Razorbacks both have top-25 offenses nationally in scoring efficiency, but play with very different goals in mind.
Anderson's team averages 72 possessions per game, which is why they've broken 100 points three times in regulation this season, and do so by taking shots within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock. Cuonzo Martin's Missouri team this year averages just shy of 66 possessions per game, faster than all but 26 other teams in the nation, and shoots the ball in the first 20 seconds of the shot clock. That five seconds of difference doesn't seem like a lot, but it adds up quickly, and the difference in this one could hinge on whether the Tigers force Arkansas to play at their slower pace of play, or whether the Razorbacks get Missouri to speed up its possessions and decision-making.
Senior shooting guard/forward Jalen Barford has been Arkansas' most consistent offensive presence this season, averaging 18.7 points per game, 19.3 in conference play, and has scored in single digits just once this season in a blowout win against Troy. He is a good shooter from anywhere on the floor and very rarely turns the ball over. Daryl Macon, his fellow senior backcourt companion, scores at the same rate as Barford and leads the team in assists, steals and 3-point shooting.
Freshman Daniel Gafford is the Razorbacks' equivalent of Jeremiah Tilmon. Already gaining draft hype, the 6-foot-11 forward from El Dorado, Ark., averages 12.3 points per game and has great touch around the rim as both a back to the basket and a face-up scorer. He's not a rebounder, but possesses elite shot-blocking talent. He also has Tilmon's propensity to get into foul trouble. If those two can stay on the court at the same time, it will be a great matchup to watch.
BETWEEN TODAY AND the first weekend of February, the Tigers can considerably help their postseason resume.
Missouri's win Wednesday against Georgia was the team's first RPI Top-50 win, an essential data point in the selection committee's assessment. Martin's team is currently 27th in the Ratings Percentage Index, which converts the team's winning percentage, its opponents' winning percentages, and the winning percentage of those opponent's opponents into a four-point decimal value to assess the quality of a team's performance relative to its schedule.
Arkansas (26), Tennessee (14), Texas A&M (32), Auburn (11) and Kentucky (6) are five of Missouri's next seven opponents, and Mississippi State and Alabama, which the Tigers will both play on the road, are Nos. 64 and 52, respectively.
By no means do the Tigers need to tear off a seven-game win streak to make the tournament (though doing so in the next three weeks would cement their NCAA berth). But Missouri's record in these games will be a strong indicator of its postseason potential as a team, and a series of competitive games with a couple of road wins would look real good come the second Sunday of March.