FAYETTEVILLE - Manny Watkins relished the question.
What advice did Arkansas NCAA Tournament-seasoned senior have to impart to the two rookies beside him Tuesday regarding the 25-9 eighth-seeded Razorbacks playing Friday’s South Regional first round game in Greenville, S.C. against the ninth-seeded 21-11 Seton Hall Pirates?
Senior guard Watkins of Fayetteville, senior center Moses Kingsley of Nigeria, junior guard Anton Beard of North Little Rock and junior forward Trey Thompson are the only active Razorbacks part of Arkansas’ last NCAA Tournament team that in 2015 at Jacksonville, Fla. beat Wofford in the NCAA Tournament’s first round then was eliminated in Round Two by top-seed North Carolina.
So obviously Dusty Hannahs and Daryl Macon, the fellow guards flanking Watkins on the dais as Arkansas’ media available players at Walton Arena, had not danced at the Big Dance. Though with a year on Watkins, fifth-year Hannahs of Little Rock and Pulaski Academy, playing for two losing teams at Texas Tech, was redshirting at Arkansas upon transferring in 2014-2015 before leading last season’s 16-16 squad and this season’s team in scoring.
Macon, the junior guard from Little Rock Parkview, transferred this season from Holmes Community College to the Razorbacks.
"Yeah, these guys have no experience whatsoever in the NCAA Tournament and I’ve got to show them the way," Watkins said, smiling with tongue in cheek. "No, the main thing I say is just stay focused and don’t get overhyped for the game. Prepare for the game like you would any other game because when you get too emotional for certain games that can be bad for you. So the practices we have before the game just take them like any other practice and go into this game like any other game and just do what you do and you’ll be fine."
Since losing to Kentucky in last Sunday’s championship game of the SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Macon said coach Mike Anderson kept them on the same practice routine they had from closing the SEC regular season between Georgia on March 4 at Walton through opening the SEC Tournament with victories over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt last Friday and Saturday in Nashville.
" I think it’s the same game plan" Macon said. "We try to focus on getting better each and every day as we practice this week."
Watkins and Hannahs both lauded the difference that junior college transfer guards Jaylen Barford and Macon have made in this 25-9 Arkansas team over last season’s 16-16 squad.
"It’s huge," Watkins said. "They just brought so much to this team, the toughness, obviously scoring and just pure talent. They brought so much more. They brought leadership, they brought just that grit, the intangible things that you need just to win games at a high level. That’s what they brought and they are going to continue to bring it for the rest of the season. I’m really glad that when they decided to pick a school they picked the Razorbacks."
Asked particularly about Barford, Hannahs said, Jaylen’s just an exceptional athlete, as you can see. He’s a great player. He brings a toughness to the game and he’s not backing down from anybody. I’ve always liked that to have in a teammate. He brings that to the table. He’s a great slashing guard. If he’s getting a head of steam, you’re not going to be able to much with him."
Rebounding, the Pirates feature Angel Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder averaging 13.1 rebounds per game, is Seton Hall’s forte.
These Hogs have taken their share of beatings on the boards. However after they were outrebounded 41-29 in an upset home loss to a Mississippi State team that had been badly outrebounded by the Texas A&M Aggies, the Razorbacks resolved to do better on the boards and actually outrebounded A&M, 36-32 while beating the Aggies, 62-60 in College Station, Texas.
"We’ve played really good rebounding teams," Hannahs said. "You just have to come ready. We know that’s their style. Kinda typical to Texas A&M-type team in the case of offensive rebounding. We know how those teams are coming to the glass, we just have to execute to box them out."