FAYETTEVILLE — NBA scouts are expected to flock to Fayetteville to see today’s battle of the big men between Arkansas Razorbacks 6-foot-11 Preseason First-Team All-SEC center Daniel Gafford, of El Dorado, and Western Kentucky 6-11 freshman MaxPreps All-American Charles Bassey of Nigeria via St. Anthony’s High School in San Antonio, Texas, and Aspire Academy in Louisville, Kentucky.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson certainly sees why the scouts sojourn to Walton Arena for today’s 2:30 p.m. game televised by the SEC Network between the 6-1 Razorbacks and 4-4 Hilltoppers of Rick Stansbury, the second-year WKU coach but former longtime Mississippi State coach and most recently the top assistant to Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy.
Gafford averages 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds and has blocked 15 shots in 14 games and scored a career high 27 points earlier this season against Indiana.
Bassey averages 13.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and blocked 19 shots in eight games.
“It’s going to be a tremendous matchup,” Anderson said. “I mean, two big guys that are really mobile and agile. I think Daniel’s got to continue to do the things he’s been doing. Be hard to guard.”
What impresses about Bassey?
“He’s got a big-time motor and has a great pair of hands,” Anderson said. “He can score. He’s a very, very talented kid. Very talented. But to me, it’s not going to be just about those two guys. It’s going to be about Western Kentucky versus Arkansas.”
Returning only Gafford, junior starting forward Adrio Bailey, a semi-regular starter last season, and sophomore reserve forward Gabe Osabuohien as scholarship players off last season’s 23-12 team, Anderson’s young Razorbacks rank among the surprises of the young season winning six consecutively after opening the season as heavy underdogs but having heavily favored Texas on the ropes before losing, 73-71 in overtime at the ESPN Armed Forces Classic at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
Stansbury’s Hilltoppers of Conference USA may not seem so imposing at 4-4 coming off a loss at Missouri State.
But Missouri State’s Bears are always tough to beat in Springfield, Missouri.
The Hilltoppers’ other losses are at traditionally tough Washington, at Indiana State and to the University of Central Florida at the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
At that Myrtle Beach Invitational the Hilltoppers defeated traditional powers Valparaiso and the Bob Huggins coached then nationally No. 24 West Virginia Mountaineers.
Stansbury adds Bassey to a Hilltoppers team that last season went 27-11 and to the semifinals of the postseason NIT in New York.
“Their record might not indicate how good a team they really are,” Anderson said. “They’ve played a tough schedule. They’re a very good basketball team. Coach Stansbury, someone we are very familiar with at Mississippi State and then he was at A&M as associate head coach and he’s got some tremendous players over there. It’s an experienced team versus our team which is an inexperienced team. It’s going to be about wills and tempo and who can get the tempo to their liking.”
Bassey has WKU’s most recognition from the NBA talent scouts but it’s guard Taveion Hollingsworth, 17.3 average including 14 of 32 threes, leading the Hilltoppers’ scoring.
Small forward Jared Savage is next at 14.1 with Bassey’s 13.8 third among WKU scorers.
The Hogs are quite familiar with WKU’s fourth leading scorer, graduate transfer guard Desean Murray, 10.9 points.
A graduate of Auburn with eligibility remaining, Murray scored 15 on Arkansas when the Tigers beat last season’s Razorbacks 88-77 at Auburn, Alabama, but only scored three when Arkansas beat Auburn, 91-82 in the SEC rematch at Walton.
Arkansas proved in its 98-74 victory over Colorado State Wednesday night in Fort Collins, Colorado that Stansbury can’t game plan just on stopping Gafford.
Colorado State’s Rams were so “determined,” Anderson said, to stop Gafford inside that they left the perimeter open for Razorbacks gunning guards Mason Jones, 4 of 8 threes and 16 points, and Isaiah Joe, 4 of 9 threes and 14 points, with freshman Keyshawn Embery-Simpson sizzling 4 of 5 threes off the bench scoring a career high 14.
Actually, it was reserve forwards Reggie Chaney, the freshman scoring 11 points, and sophomore Gabe Osabuohien, five points and five boards in nine minutes, who got it going inside before Gafford tallied 10 of his game’s 12 points in the second half, Anderson said.
Anderson was most impressed that in Fort Collins of Arkansas’ 38 field goals, 28 were assisted.
Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris dished them by the dozen against just two turnovers.
“More and more he’s taking command out there,” Anderson said of Harris’ example become contagious. “Twenty-eight assists on 38 field goals. That’s trusting one another.”