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December 13, 2018

Surprising sophomores spark Hog resurgence

This article was published December 7, 2018 at 3:00 a.m.

Mike Anderson may have stumbled into the best all-around team he has ever had in Fayetteville.

Anderson undoubtedly puts in hours of work every year scouting players and going after prospects he feel will best help the Arkansas men's basketball team. The success of his most recent class was forecast for years, but the early success has been partly driven by some unexpected sources..

The Razorbacks signed in-state prospects Isaiah Joe out of Fort Smith Northside, Desi Sills from Jonesboro and Ethan Henderson out of Little Rock Parkview earlier this year. All three have been Arkansas commits for years, as were fellow freshmen Reggie Chaney, from Findlay Prep in Nevada by way of Tulsa, Okla., and Keyshawn Embery-Simpson out of the IMG Academy in Florida by way of Midwest City, Okla.

The star of the close-knit group was supposed to be Reggie Perry (6-10, 245), from Thomasville, Ga. He played with Joe, Sills and Henderson on the Arkansas Hawks in AAU, along with Little Rock Christian signee Justice Hill, who ended his high school career on Saturday by leading the Warriors to a 52-38 victory over Pulaski Academy in the Class 5A state championship football game at War Memorial Stadium.

Perry's decommitment in the summer of 2017 left a bad taste in the mouths of Arkansas fans who may or may not have accused Mississippi State of nefarious recruiting practices, and not for the first time. Perry cited family health concerns and travel distance with opting for Starkville, Miss. -- still more than seven hours away from his hometown -- over Fayetteville. Mississippi State is also his father's alma mater.

The five-star freshman now averages 7.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for the 7-1 Bulldogs. Arkansas is only scheduled to meet Mississippi State once in the regular season -- Feb. 16 in Fayetteville.

The projected roster was turned on its head again in the spring when two of Arkansas' top returning players from last season opted to transfer. Darious Hall, out of Wilbur D. Mills in Little Rock, transferred to DePaul (5-1) and C.J. Jones, from Birgminham, Ala., transferred to Middle Tennessee State (3-6). The pair would likely have been two of Arkansas' leading scorers starting alongside Preseason All-Southeastern Conference sophomore center Daniel Gafford.

Anderson needed more players just to fill out his roster. He added forward Jordan Phillips, from Fort Worth, Texas, months after Perry decommitted.

Forward Ibrahim Ali (6-10, 244) signed with May after he was granted a release from his letter of intent to play for Baylor. Ali signed with Arkansas a month after Mason Jones, a sophomore guard from Desoto, Texas, who played last season at Connors State College in Oklahoma.

Jones was not even the most high profile player from Connors State. The team's leading scorer, Ra'Shawn Langston from Jacksonville, is now teammates with Hot Springs alum Exavian Christon at Louisiana Tech.

Arkansas was voted 10th in the SEC in the preseason poll, largely due to the team's inexperience. Gafford was the only returning player from the team's top seven scorers last season.

In stepped Jones and sophomore point guard Jalen Harris, who have unexpectedly provided the Hogs with scoring threats and unselfishness Arkansas has rarely possessed during Anderson's tenure. Fans expected the freshman class to provide a boost to the program, but Joe is the only frosh in the starting five, alongside Gafford, Jones, Harris and junior forward Adrio Bailey, the only scholarship upperclassman on the roster.

Harris averaged just 4.5 points and 2.3 assists in 20.6 minutes per game in 2016-17 as a freshman on a New Mexico team that finished 17-14. He redshirted last season after transferring to Arkansas as many considered him him a bit piece moving forward.

Jones and Harris have instead led the team to a 6-1 record, with their only loss coming against Texas (5-3) in overtime in El Paso, Texas. The pair excelled, along with the rest of the young squad, on Wednesday in their first true road game at Colorado State (4-5).

Harris scored eight points and dished out a game-high 12 assists, while Jones led the team in scoring with 16 points and 4-for-8 shooting on 3-pointers. The Razorbacks won, 98-74, and finished the game with a 28-16 edge in assists over the Rams.

The two sophomores are key figures in an unselfish offense that efficiently shares the ball. Arkansas is leading its opponents in assists, 141-85, winning the assist battle in every game this season.

Harris himself is only the second true point guard Anderson has had at Arkansas. B.J. Young was a scorer first, as was Anton Beard. Anderson only got one solid season out of Jabril Durham, who managed to average 6.4 assists per game for the 2015-16 team that went 16-16.

Harris makes this offense go and Jones provides a dangerous third option, which Anderson has not always had. Only Marshawn Powell could give Young support in Anderson's second season.

Ky Madden supported Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls for two seasons and a budding Gafford aided Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon a season ago. However, Barford, Macon and even Beard all scored in bunches through isolation.

This current team scores within the team offense facilitated by Harris, who is averaging 7.3 assists per game. Jones is second on the team with three per game.

Gafford and Joe are the leading scorers at 18.7 and 16 points per game, while Jones is averaging 14.3 points and Bailey has 10.9. Anderson's teams have often had a weak link in the starting lineup with someone shoehorned into the point guard or power forward roles, but every piece on this year's team fits the system.

The post players are true post players instead of converted forwards, such as Alandise Harris, Keaton Miles or Jacorey Williams. Chaney looks as raw as a freshman Moses Kingsley, but he and sophomore Gabe Osabuohien are physical complements inside off of the bench, which has also been rare for Anderson, who all but refused to put Portis and Kingsley on the floor together.

Even at my most skeptical, I always said this team looked like it would be fun to watch, but the young Razorbacks are exceeding everyone's expectations early in the season. The SEC schedule awaits, as do several remaining non-conference tests, but Anderson's team is providing just the type of excitement and positive vibes the fan base is craving after years of monumental failure in football.

Sports on 12/07/2018
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