Razorbacks square off against another mid-major power hosting SFA.
FAYETTEVILLE — Of mid-majors Fort Wayne and Texas-Arlington that Arkansas struggled to beat in November after Mike Anderson touted them beforehand, the Arkansas coach could say, “I told you so” since Fort Wayne on Nov. 22 knocked off the Indiana Hoosiers and UTA on Tuesday night ambushed the Texas Longhorns. Anderson just hopes he isn’t saying “I told you so” at Arkansas’ expense after his Razorbacks host the Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjacks tonight. Reigning Southland Conference champion SFA, 2-2, and Arkansas, 4-1, tip off at 8 p.m. at Walton Arena televised nationally by the SEC Network. Other than perhaps some recalling that former Arkansas Lady Razorbacks Coach and current since national champion Texas A&M Women’s Coach Gary Blair came to Arkansas from Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas fans likely don’t think much about Stephen F. Austin. Well here is something to think about. While the Razorbacks ended their 2015-2016 season 16-16 without a postseason tournament, the Lumberjacks went 32-3 with a perfect 18-0 Southland Conference season. As the 14th seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Lumberjacks axed the Bob Huggins coached third-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers 70-56 and went to the wire in a 76-75 second-round loss to sixth-seeded Notre Dame. SFA lost its coach, Brad Underwood now coaches Oklahoma State, and three starters from last season’s team and is without a fourth since 6-5 junior returning guard Ty Charles broke his finger during the season opener and isn’t expected to play again until late December. “They lost quite a few of those guys but still yet the DNA in that program is about being in tournaments and playing against quality teams,” Anderson said. “So they won’t be fazed coming in here.” New SFA Coach Kyle Keller is an old hand assisting the likes of Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and Bill Self at Kansas and knows Arkansas well from his recent years assisting Billy Kennedy in the SEC at Texas A&M. The Jacks return a nationally elite player, 6-8 sophomore forward TJ Holyfield who started 34 games last season and this season blossoms with a 13.8 scoring average tallying inside and outside, 17 of 30 threes, while averaging a team-leading 7.3 rebounds. As for guards, senior Dallas Cameron, last season’s SFA sixth man also blossoms averaging 12.3 points and 3.0 assists as a starter joined by junior college transfer Van Canete averaging 13.5 points. It’s a 3-pronged attack with Holyfield the head prong “He is their go-to guy,” Anderson said. “He is their leading scorer, a guy that can score inside and step away from the floor. A very talented player.” Arkansas senior guard Manuale Watkins, not only from three seasons and five games playing for Anderson but as the son of Melvin Watkins, Anderson’s top assistant at Missouri and Arkansas and the former Texas A&M head coach, knows well how major so-called mid-majors like SFA can be. “ Every team is good at this level,” Watkins said of Division I whether you call them major or mid-major. “They're going to come for our throats and we're going to come for theirs. We've just got to come out ready to play and play hard.” And keep the turnovers down which the Hogs did committing just seven during Monday night’s 89-76 victory over Mount St. Mary’s at Walton after committing 21 during the 85-71 loss on Nov. 22 at Minnesota. How did they turn around the turnover problem? “We got our tails kicked the game before and we kind of saw that was one of the big things,” Watkins said. “Coach addressed it and we got a lot of guys that you have some mistakes and the coach addresses. We got guys who can hone in on it and fix it, and that’s what we did.” Anderson also addressed the turnovers and a better defensive start by starting returning veteran guards Watkins of Fayetteville and junior 2-year letterman Anton Beard of North Little Rock and bringing heretofore junior college transfer guards Jaylen Bradford and Daryl Macon, a Little Rock Parkview High grad, off the bench. All four responded well to their different roles. Anderson said he “probably” will use those four guards the same way against Stephen F. Austin. Junior forward Dustin Thomas, redshirted last season as a transfer from the University of Colorado, comes off his best game as a Razorback tallying 13 points and five boards against Mount St. Mary’s.