COLUMBIA, MO. • His mind was elsewhere as he walked off the court at Mizzou Arena on Wednesday, but sometime between the final buzzer and his postgame interview, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin heard his next opponent’s score.
Louisiana State 75, Arkansas 54 — in Fayetteville, Ark., no less. It was another reminder that every night the suddenly deeper and more dangerous Southeastern Conference can deliver something unexpected.
“I was surprised to see that score,” Martin said after his team took down Georgia 68-56.
Martin didn’t know much more about the Razorbacks, but has since had enough time to diagnose Mike Anderson’s team. Just a week ago, the Razorbacks were nationally ranked after a promising start that included a win over Big 12 heavyweight Oklahoma. The Razorbacks returned major pieces from last year’s 26-win team, which reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and were a popular top-four pick in the conference this year.
But the Hogs trudge into Saturday’s sold-out showdown against Missouri on a three-game losing streak. The Tigers (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) and Razorbacks (11-5, 1-3) renew their rivalry at 5 p.m. at Bud Walton Arena, the first matchup in their annual two-game series. The Razorbacks, a veteran team with six seniors in the rotation, have been here before.
“Our confidence is still up,” senior guard Jaylen Barford told reporters after Wednesday’s loss. “The same thing happened last year and we ended up going on a winning streak.”
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That’s accurate. Anderson’s team lost three of its first four conference games last season, then began a four-game winning streak with a victory over Missouri in Fayetteville. Anderson, who coached the Tigers from 2006-11, knows better than to count on history, especially against a revitalized Mizzou core that’s already won an SEC road game this year, last week at South Carolina.
“I think Cuonzo has done a really good job of going in there and getting those guys to play how he wants them to play,” said Anderson, who was 1-2 against Martin’s Tennessee teams from 2012-14. “That’s always important. They’re playing with a lot of energy. They’re playing defense. They’re shooting the basketball well.”
And, for now, they’re handling the ball better. After three games with 20 turnovers during nonconference play, the Tigers have averaged just 10 turnovers through three SEC games. During a 10-day break after the Braggin’ Rights Game against Illinois, Martin’s staff adjusted the team’s floor strategy against extended pressure, a tweak that paid off late at South Carolina when the Tigers routinely broke the Gamecocks’ pressure. In Wednesday’s win over Georgia, with point guard Jordan Geist playing a season-high 34 minutes, the Tigers gave the ball away a season-low six times, their fewest turnovers in an SEC game since Feb. 10, 2016 at Vanderbilt.
“We’re progressing,” Martin said.
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Good timing. Anderson’s teams are known for applying full-court pressure, and whether or not they force a bushel of turnovers, the extended defense can wear teams down by the second half, especially at the Hogs’ home trough. Arkansas isn’t turning teams over like vintage Anderson teams — the Hogs’ turnover rate of 19.4 percent is just seventh in the SEC — and have allowed the most points per game in the league at 75.7.
Martin is every bit as concerned with Arkansas’ offense. The Razorbacks feature the SEC’s only team with two players among the league’s top seven scorers: Barford (18.8 points per game) and Daryl Macon (16.3), both 6-3 seniors shooting better than 41 percent from 3-point range. Daniel Gafford, a four-star 6-11 freshman, is already one of the most productive young frontcourt players Anderson has recruited to Fayetteville, averaging 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds.
“I know they play hard, they play in space, they attack the rim,” Martin said. “They’ve got really good guards. You have to be sound defensively. You have to build a wall defensively. You have to make them take tough shots. But they play in space and most times his teams have four or five guys who can dribble, pass it and attack the rim and make plays.”
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Anderson, 6-4 against Missouri as Arkansas’ coach and 4-1 in Fayetteville, was especially disappointed with his team’s energy in the opening minutes against LSU. This has been one of his most efficient offensive teams through two months, but it missed 27 of its first 33 shots Wednesday, never generated a transition game and couldn’t feed the post.
“It’s still a long season,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”