MASON JONES: Outscored eight other players against Florida. Brian Chilson

When Arkansas started SEC play by sneaking out of College Station, Texas, with a really shaky victory over those pernicious Aggie types, it all seemed so simple, right? The formula for some degree of success in what is shaping up to be a rough-and-tumble league in 2018-19 was set: The Hogs could ill afford to be so reliant on the three-pointer, they had to be aggressive defensively, and they had to figure out some way to get their short, inexperienced bench to contribute.


Four days after that, that bench scored zero points in an almost historically ugly home loss to Florida in which guard Mason Jones posted more points than the other eight players who saw action combined. It figured that Mike Anderson would have his charges far better prepared for a weekend tilt against a very tough LSU team, and sure enough, Arkansas did play with far more spirit against the Tigers at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.

The trouble is, even with Daniel Gafford taking an authoritative role in the contest (a career-best 32 points and an authoritative slam that sent the game to overtime, where it might’ve appeared Arkansas had momentum after trailing virtually all night), Arkansas still didn’t get quite enough from others. Jones was steady again, too, with 22, and Reggie Chaney contributed 12 off the pine. But Isaiah Joe was punchless, Desi Sills didn’t score, and the Hogs had nary an answer for the Tigers’ rangy McDonald’s All-American Naz Reid, who had 27 points and seven boards, and the defense yet again had lapses at the worst possible junctures.


Make no mistake, this is a balanced, potent LSU team, but it’s also a program that has constantly struggled to find its footing in a state where football and baseball reign supreme. The Tigers blew the doors off an uninspired Arkansas team at Bud Walton last year and then completed a season sweep with a win at Baton Rouge, but that was an 18-15 team that caught the Hogs sleeping twice. This time, Arkansas gave its all, but Will Wade has assembled a quality roster with better depth in short order, and that was enough to stave off the shorthanded Hogs, 94-88.

The hangover effect may or may not have been in play when the Hogs had a quick turnaround to take on No. 3 Tennessee in Knoxville Tuesday. Simply put, regardless of how dispirited the LSU loss might have rendered the team, the Razorbacks weren’t going to thwart what may well be the best and most experienced Volunteer team ever. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams are the stalwarts, but what wounded the Hogs at Thompson-Boling Arena was the Vols’ 1-2 reserve punch of Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, who combined for 40 points and keyed the first-half surge that put the hosts comfortably ahead by 21 at halftime.


Meanwhile, Gafford was in foul trouble and largely ineffective, negating a bounce-back game from Joe (23 points and seven triples) and more workmanlike efforts from Jones (18 points) and Chaney (11 points). And, OK, when you get right down to it, the Hogs deserve some credit for at least trying to climb out of the big hole, as they outscored Tennessee in the second half and actually looked efficient in doing so.

But this team’s shortage of manpower — or, let’s put it this way, the fact that going on the road in this conference almost always ends up with your best players in foul trouble — is going to be a season-long issue. And that’s why the defections of Darious Hall and C.J. Jones after last season ended, along with Khalil Garland’s unresolved health problems and Anderson’s strange reluctance to play freshman post Ethan Henderson, are so damning. There’s skill here, but the minute the whistle blows on Gafford one too many times and the shooters start falling in love with their range, the wheels come off the wagon, and hard.

Anderson is in a precarious spot. Last year’s team underachieved by all objective measure, and this team’s best player is going to be wooed yet again by the lure of professional riches. He was also hired by the last athletic director eight years ago to get the program back to a competitive level, and he’s fallen short of that with plenty of time granted to him for that purpose. There’s a lot of season left and some good opportunities to reclaim lost ground, but there has to be some fire and urgency on the court and the sidelines, and right now those traits are somewhat lacking to put it kindly.