Freshman Beard sparks more defensive-minded Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Anton Beard’s offensive ability was never in doubt after winning state championships in each of his final two high school seasons.

The talented Arkansas freshman, however, appears to have quickly morphed into a long-awaited defensive answer for the surging and No. 23 Razorbacks (12-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).

Arkansas enters its SEC home opener against Vanderbilt on Saturday on a six-game winning streak, having rallied from 13 points down to win 79-75 at Georgia on Tuesday.

For the Razorbacks, whose conferences road woes had evolved to the point of almost expected since coach Mike Anderson’s hiring after the 2011 season, the opening victory was no small step. And it was secured by a late-game lineup largely focused on defense, led by the emerging 6-foot point guard Beard.

”It’s just toughness,” Anderson said. ”(Beard) plays with his heart. I think he’s a guy that plays with his heart; he’s going to do whatever it takes to help you win.”

Beard, who played a career-high 20 minutes in the win, saw the majority of his action during the game’s most critical times – playing the entirety of the final 14:33 as Arkansas won its SEC road opener for the first time since 2008.

The North Little Rock freshman harassed the Bulldogs throughout his time on the court, finishing with three steals while also hitting a key 3-pointer that tied the game at 61-61 with 8:52 remaining. He now has nine steals in his last three games, including five against Milwaukee-Wisconsin, and has fully embraced his new role as defensive nuisance.

”In college, everyone can score,” Beard said. ”So now, it’s just about finding my edge . And that was really defense, picking them up full court and all that. That’s really what it was. Just adjusting to it.”

While Beard was the lone freshman on the court during Tuesday night’s closing stretch, he was far from the only defensive-minded and somewhat unexpected presence for the Razorbacks.

Sophomore guard Manuale Watkins also played the majority of the final stretch, also finishing with a career-best 22 minutes. The walk-on is tied for eighth in the SEC in steals with an average of 1.6 steals per game, doing so while only playing 16.4 minutes per game.

The increased playing time has been a welcomed surprise for both the Razorbacks and Watkins, who averaged only 3.4 minutes per game last season before turning his offseason focus to the defensive side of the ball.

”I knew (defense) was really everything for me,” Watkins said. ”… I definitely knew defense was going to be my niche, and I just came into the season with that kind of mindset. That’s what it’s going to be like all season.”

Arkansas won just once on the road in SEC play in each of Anderson’s first two seasons, and it lost its first four conference games away from Bud Walton Arena last season.

However, the Razorbacks ended last season by winning three of their final five road games – including a win at eventual NCAA tournament runner-up Kentucky.

They hope Tuesday night was another step toward a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, with their youthful and fearless backcourt leading the way on defense.

”I am not surprised,” Beard said. ”It’s not cocky, it’s just confidence. You have got to have confidence in yourself in anything you do. I believe what I have been doing will help the team.”