FAYETTEVILLE — A young Razorbacks basketball team renews an old Arkansas rivalry against Texas on Friday.
Far from the Texas Longhorns Austin home but still in Texas at the Fort Bliss Army base in El Paso, the Razorbacks and Longhorns renew their rivalry from bygone Southwest Conference days at the ESPN Armed Classic tipping off at 6 p.m. and nationally televised by ESPN.
Tonight’s tip-off officially opens Arkansas’ season.
Texas stands 1-0 warming up defeating Eastern Illinois 71-59 Tuesday night in Austin.
For Arkansas it’s not just a season-opener but an eye-opener.
Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have no seniors and just one scholarship junior, two-year letterman forward Adrio Bailey.
Only Razorbacks Bailey, starting sophomore Preseason All-SEC center Daniel Gafford, of El Dorado, sophomore reserve forward Gabe Osabuohien and walk-on guard Jonathan Holmes have played an actual Arkansas game other than the recent two exhibition game victories at Walton Arena over Division II small colleges Tusculum and Southwest Baptist.
So, likely starting guards Jalen Harris, the sophomore point guard redshirted last season as a transfer from the University of New Mexico, sophomore junior college transfer Mason Jones and freshman Isaiah Joe, from Fort Smith Northside, and the key reserves other than Osabuohien get their Arkansas basketball baptism against a Texas team returning four starters that qualified the Longhorns for last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“I think if you’re a player, you look forward to that,” Anderson said. “What better way to find out right off the bat where you from a team standpoint? We get a chance to get a great evaluation early on. We’re not playing at home, we’re not playing particularly on their homecourt, so we’ll out a little bit more about ourselves real quick and early. Maybe that’s going to be a lesson for us. Whether we win or lose it’s going to be a lesson for our basketball team.”
Arkansas played two jittery first halves in their exhibitions.
The Razorbacks committed 13 first-half turnovers and lee Tusculum only 30-24 at intermission and led Southwest Baptist, 40-30 at intermission before finishing with a flourish for 96-47 and 100-63 romps.
Obviously, Texas ought not be nearly so comparatively vulnerable to an explosive second half should the Hogs lag considerably in the first half.
Not that all is rosy in Longhorns land.
Three years ago Texas ran off Rick Barnes, their mostly successful coach with 402 wins for 17 years, to chase and secure nationally hot coaching commodity Shaka Smart from Virginia Commonwealth.
Some wonder if that was a “smart” choice given the Longhorns 51-50 for Smart’s three seasons.
Meanwhile, Barnes’ Tennessee Vols tied Auburn for the SEC championship last season and currently rank third in the country.
Still, the Longhorns did improve from 11-22 to 19-15 and the NCAA Tournament first round last season.
They have a nationally acclaimed recruiting class to go with returning starters Dylan Osetowski, the 6-foot-9 senior, averaging 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, 6-9 forward Jericho Sims guards Kerwin Roach, on disciplinary suspension when Texas beat Eastern Illinois but expected to be available tonight, Matt Coleman and Jase Febres.
Coleman took charge in Roach’s absence against Eastern Illinois scoring 13 points and dealing seven assists.
The Longhorns have a profile in courage, Andrew Jones, a 6-4 guard, averaging 13.5 points until his 2017-2018 season ended with a diagnosis of leukemia, already returned and playing off the bench, and a freshman class recruited to play the uptempo ball that Smart employed taking Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four.
“He relates well to the kids, recruits well. As a matter of fact, he’s now getting the type of kids he wants there at Texas,” Anderson said. “So I think you’ll Texas be much improved even from last year.I think they have guys that fit what he’s doing. He’s got an outstanding basketball mind.”
Unless one team just gets so burned for awhile that it slows things down, expect a full blast tempo with the styles that Anderson and Smart employ.
“It’s going to be an uptempo game,” Anderson said, “They like to play pressure defense and press and get after it and Shaka feels like he has the athletes to do that. And we don’t go away from what we do. We’ll try to really get our defense to be the highlight of what we do creating some easy offense for us.”
Arkansas appears to have the athletic talent to play Anderson’s way but tonight marks the first test if he has enough knowing how to play his way.
“Nine newcomers to our basketball team,” Anderson said. “So it’s going to be some unchartered waters.”