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Raw bunch 

The major Arkansas programs continue to get one meaningful opportunity to take their talents to the center of the state each season and the pre-Christmas squaring off between the basketball Hogs and a generally inept foe has become tradition. Most years, the results are as they were Saturday night at Verizon Arena: slightly out-of-place traveling team takes time to get its bearings in a multipurpose venue, doesn't play quite as crisp coming off final exams, and yet gets away with it because the mediocrity of the opponent and the bonus of alcohol availability to the attendees make for a slightly more spirited and competitive game.

This year's designated victim was a little nondescript 3-6 team from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which had dropped a game to a Division II program earlier and naturally had the appearance of a pushover. Steve Henson, a onetime Lon Kruger assistant and a guy who is generally well regarded in the coaching ranks for his knowledge of the game, is in Year Three of a rebuild that appears to be taking a step backward, as the hapless Roadrunners are now 3-7 after the Razorbacks were finally able to use last-minute free throw accuracy to extract a 79-67 win. That nudged the Hogs to 7-2 in front of a fairly spotty but throaty Saturday night gathering in North Little Rock, and for as disheveled as it was for much of the night, it was also a victory first and foremost. And it came on the heels of a shocking home loss to Western Kentucky the weekend before; so at a bare minimum, the result was at least passable given its immediate precedent.

We can hand the team MVP honors at this point to rangy freshman guard Isaiah Joe. For all the worldly skills that Daniel Gafford possesses — and his numbers are well up over his freshman year marks — he still evidences an occasional detachment from the game. After a half of play, the sophomore post had all of two field goal attempts and a single dunk to his credit, though he had grabbed a few boards and spearheaded the Hogs' transition game with some effective outlet passing as Arkansas shook off a really flimsy start to build a slight halftime lead, 35-28.

And Joe was the catalyst. With four of his smooth five three-pointers finding their target in the first half, the Fort Smith product seemed very comfortable in the different confines, likely traceable to his AAU days in Central Arkansas. At the end, it was the soft stroke of Joe at the free throw line — 6-for-6 in the final half-minute to finish off a 21-point masterpiece of delicate shooting touch — that cemented the win.

Between and among all that, Arkansas was erratic at best. No one aside from Joe could find a consistent stroke from the perimeter, and because Gafford struggled so mightily to assert an offensive presence against the Roadrunners, who were obscenely (and often, illegally) all over Gafford's shoulders and back in an effort to thwart him, it typically falls to the likes of junior forward Adrio Bailey to provide some help. But he, too, was off (a two-point, foul-addled 13 minutes), so it was all on bulky freshman Reggie Chaney to provide some help.

And Chaney, who hasn't made scoring a priority in his freshman campaign, responded to the award of more floor time from UA Coach Mike Anderson. UTSA's shoot-first, shoot-often guard tandem of Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace kept the 'Runners close by making a variety of quick-trigger shots — try to imagine how this game might have turned out if those two had been more accurate than the aggregate 12-for-37 from the floor that they posted — Chaney quietly but importantly played his best game of 2018-19 at a fairly urgent juncture. While Gafford had to slowly immerse himself in the offensive game plan, Chaney tied his career best with an efficient (5-for-7 on field goals, almost all within a few feet of the bucket) 11-point night, he was also a shockingly steadying presence on the floor given his youth.

Chaney saw 28 minutes of action Saturday night and earned every bit of it by simply being as engaged in the action as he was. He sank all five of his second-half baskets in the first 10 minutes of action, and whereas most such outbursts from a player are noteworthy because they spur a big team spurt, in this case Chaney's points were essential because they either lifted Arkansas to a lead after San Antonio had somehow vaulted back into contention, or they answered a Roadrunner score. That production allowed Gafford to finally start asserting himself in the waning minutes, as Henson's bench got thin late thanks to foul-outs. Gafford ultimately posted a double-double with a 13-point, 14-rebound showing. Freshman guard Desi Sills helped offset sophomore Mason Jones' off night with a nine-point game off the pine, and Arkansas's decisive bench advantage and extremely welcome free throw proficiency spelled the difference.

Arkansas has a two-step this week that brings ACC team for Georgia Tech to Fayetteville and then a surprising 10-1 Texas State squad into Bud Walton. Neither foe can be considered a cinched-up victim at this point, by any means. The Hogs' youth is showing itself in the typical ways: Saturday's game was, in particular, marked by long stretches of offensive inefficiency and fits of defensive inattention that could've well been costly. This still has the foundation of a quality team by season's end, however, and that's because most of the guys are adapting quickly to whatever role they are asked to serve. Chaney's first few games were ineffectual, but if some of the other newcomers follow his example from Saturday — he also grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists to flaunt his versatility — then again, this is a team that can shrug off two narrow defeats so far and wrap up nonconference play with double-digit wins.

Despite the overall weakness of schedule, that still says plenty about how well a very raw bunch of athletes has coalesced. Mike Anderson may have to coax even a little bit more from the reserves along the way, though. Joe's going to have off nights and Gafford will continue to have varying results dependent upon how long it takes for him to establish the feel of the game. That necessarily means Sills, Keshawn Embery-Simpson, Chaney and, maybe at some point, a guy like Jordan Phillips are essential to the team's progress as conference play arrives.

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