Gafford front and center for inexperienced Arkansas squad
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Daniel Gafford is living his best life these days around the Arkansas campus, and that’s exactly what the sophomore had in mind after last season when he took a likely one-year pass on the NBA.
The Razorbacks forward is seemingly everywhere in Fayetteville, from being shown on the video board cheering in the student section during Arkansas football games to standing out while merely walking across campus — all 6-foot-11 of his star-powered self.
“It’s basically the same life I had last year on campus,” Gafford said. “I’m just walking around, basically doing the same thing I always did.”
It’s on the basketball court where Gafford figures to continue putting on a show for the state to enjoy this season. The preseason first-team All-Southeastern Conference forward is back for another go at it, this time in a leading role for a program that returns only three scholarship players from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.
“When you look at our team this year, there’s a lot of unknowns,” coach Mike Anderson said.
What’s different about this season for Gafford are expectations. A year ago, the wildly athletic Arkansas native was seen as a freshman project on an experienced and guard-led team that finished 23-12 before losing to Butler in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, he’s a nearly universally projected lottery pick charged with leading an unproven group of newcomers. And that’s just fine with Gafford — who has blossomed from an under-the-radar prep recruit to one of the top players in the country.
“I mainly wanted to come back to mature more,” Gafford said. “I wanted to come back and get used to the process of stepping into the spotlight and being a leader . All the fame and stuff really doesn’t come first for me. I came back to do what I do best, and that’s play basketball.”
Arkansas was picked to finish 10th in the SEC this season during the league’s media days, a reflection of the roster overhaul that left Gafford, junior Adrio Bailey and sophomore Gabe Osabuohien as the team’s lone scholarship players. The lack of preseason recognition isn’t a problem for Gafford, who shot 60.5 percent from the field last season while averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in 23 minutes per game.
“No concern at all,” Gafford said. “Because we’ve all stepped into our roles like we’ve needed to. That’s why got recruited; that’s why we came up here to play ball.”
The Razorbacks were 19th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage last season, hitting 39.6 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. They return only one player this season who hit a 3-point shot a year ago, walk-on Jonathan Holmes — who was just 2 of 6 from deep. Freshman Isaiah Joe is expected to be one of the top outside options, and the 6-foot-5 guard showed his range while hitting 9 of 14 3-pointers while scoring 31 points in the team’s Red-White scrimmage last week.
The Razorbacks lost six of their top seven scorers from a year ago, and they are missing a total 63.7 points per game from last year’s roster, due to graduation or transfers. Anderson restocked with a talented group of newcomers, including transfers Jalen Harris and Mason Jones. Harris sat out last season after transferring from New Mexico, and Jones averaged 15.5 points per game last year in junior college.
“It was a good recruiting class, but I’m one of those guys who doesn’t rush to judgment,” Anderson said. “The proof will be in the pudding. We’ll see what these guys can do on the floor.”
Arkansas was 263rd in the country in scoring defense a year ago, allowing an average of 75.6 points per game. Anderson is counting on the newcomers to put defense first early in the season while they sort out their roles on the other side of the court, hoping that can help in their quest to return to the postseason.
Arkansas opens its season against former Southwest Conference rival Texas at Fort Bliss, Texas, on Nov. 9. They return home for five straight games, including a matchup with Indiana on Nov. 18. Arkansas is trying to reach the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time in five seasons: