FAYETTEVILLE — Though not nationally-touted after losing 2014-2015 underclassmen Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA draft and two senior starters from last season to graduation — plus the incumbent starting point guard still fulfilling a semester-long disciplinary suspension — part of the national college basketball spotlight nonetheless shines upon the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
On ESPNU at 1 p.m. CST Thursday, the NIT Season Tip-Off tips off with Arkansas (2-1) vs. the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (3-1) at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the NBA home of the Brooklyn Nets.
Thursday’s Arkansas vs. Georgia Tech game will be followed at the Barclay Center by Villanova (4-0) vs. Stanford (2-2).
On Friday at 11:30 a.m. CST Thursday’s losers will collide on ESPNU followed by Thursday’ s winners meeting at 2 p.m. CST on ESPN2.
“We’ve got a big log on our shoulder,” Arkansas junior guard Manny Watkins of Fayetteville said of many counting the Hogs with the season barely begun. “This is our first chance in a nationally-televised game to show what we’re made of. So yeah, that’s definitely on our mind, people counting us out. I think even people around here are probably already counting us out. So we’re ready for it.”
Far more ready for that than to take in the Big Apple, Watkins said.
“Yeah it’s New York, but we’re going there to take care of business and win basketball games,” Watkins said. “We’re not going there to sightsee or do all that stuff. We’re going there to play basketball. That’s what I think all our guys’ mindset are, and that’s good.”
Been there done that, for the Barclay Center, says Razorbacks senior forward Keaton Miles, previously at the University of West Virginia before transferring to Arkansas.
“I’ve played in Barclay,” Miles said. “I played there with West Virginia when we played Michigan. Personally it’s a nice arena and what-not but that’s not the focus. The focus is on Georgia Tech.”
Miles said the Hogs beating an ACC team on a neutral court in Brooklyn would send a wakeup call.
“If you’re asleep and not really paying attention to us, this is the stage to really wake people up,” Miles said. “We have to seize the opportunity to wake people up.”
So far, the Razorbacks have proven that off the bench junior guard Dusty Hannahs, 11 of 16 treys including 5 of 5 in the most recent game, can shoot and that 6-10 junior center Moses Kingsley can score and rebound. Kingsley averages a double-double 18 points and 10 rebounds and has blocked nine shots.
However the Hogs haven’t played the caliber defense that Coach Mike Anderson prefers and they have been vulnerable to the 3-point allowing 29 threes in three games including 13 of 28 on threes by Akron in the Zips’ 88-80 first-round NIT Tip-Off game at Walton Arena.
Georgia Tech is kind of a one-man show on threes, leading the ACC in 3-point shooting last season for Virginia Tech then transferring as a graduate student to Georgia Tech.
“I think he’s a guy that is going to open it up for them,” Anderson said. “You have got to pay attention to him because he was the leading scorer at Virginia Tech and now he comes to a team that really needs him that has the big guys inside.”
Coach Brian Gregory’s Yellowjackets are a load inside.
Senior Nick Jacobs, 15.0 points and 6.8 rebounds and known well by Arkansas in the SEC having played at Alabama before transferring to Georgia Tech, and Charles Mitchell, 14.5 points and 11.5 rebounds and a transfer from Maryland, are both 6-8 and burly in the 255 to 260-pound range.
Marcus Georges-Hunt, a 6-5, senior small forward who actually has played only for Georgia Tech, leads Tech with a 16.8 scoring average while Josh Heath, yet another transfer the Hogs are SEC familiar with at Florida, operates at point guard while Smith shoots threes.
Another graduate student, forward James White formerly played in Arkansas at UALR.
“White is giving them an athletic guy inside running the floor that rebounds the ball,” Anderson said.
Anderson was asked about Friday’s pairing with either Villanova of Philadelphia and the Big East or Stanford of Northern California and the Pac 12.
“I know Villanova is very outstanding,” Anderson said. “They played the same team (Akron) we played and ended up beating them by 20. Villanova is probably a Top Ten team. (Coach) Jay Wright does a great job with them.
What about Stanford.
“Stanford is a big team,” Anderson said. “They have a lot of new players but they have two 6-11 kids and some athletic wing players and some good guard play. Johnny Dawkins (Stanford’s coach) does a great job of how they mix their defense up. Both those teams are outstanding teams.”