FAYETTVILLE — Arkansas guard BJ Young was named a first-team, All-Southeastern Conference preseason pick by the league’s coaches Friday.
A few hours later, the Razorbacks got a dose of what life is like without one of the SEC’s best players during their season opener against Sam Houston State.
Arkansas opened year two under coach Mike Anderson with a 73-68 win against the Bearkats in front of an announced crowd of 7,450 in Bud Walton Arena. It was a sloppy debut for a group missing its top scorer, who sat on the bench and served the final leg of his two-game suspension for violating team rules.
Forward Coty Clarke led the Razorbacks with 20 points, while Marshawn Powell added 14 in his first regular season game since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last November. Forward Hunter Mickelson also scored 11 as Arkansas tipped off the season with a rugged win.
“We’re happy to get the win more than anything else,” Anderson said. “As a coach and as a staff you always wonder how your team is going to come out that first real, real game. Understanding the intensity and serious nature that takes place.”
It was a valid question for the Razorbacks, who introduced a revamped roster that included five newcomers - four of them freshmen – Friday night.
The result was much different from the easy wins in two exhibition games, where the Razorbacks rolled behind their talent and depth. That wasn’t the case against Sam Houston State, which never trailed by more than 13 points in the opener.
The Bearkats hung around largely because of their work on the glass, outrebounding Arkansas 36-23. Sam Houston State survived a 15-2 run in the first half, which helped the Razorbacks take a 37-29 halftime lead. It also survived Arkansas’ spurts in the second half, closing to within four with a minute left.
Guard Darius Gatson scored a game-high 20 points to lead Sam Houston State, which also scored 14 second-chance points and finished with 36 points in the paint.
“I just thought they wanted it more,” Anderson said. “I thought they just took the fight to our guys and that’s something we’re certainly going to work on. We’re a much, much better rebounding team than that.”
Clarke’s solid debut helped the Razorbacks fight off the Bearkats. The junior college transfer scored 20 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in his first Arkansas game and was particularly strong at the free-throw line, knocking down 10 of 12 attempts.
It included two free-throws in the final minutes to help Arkansas hold on.
“I felt good coming out,” Clarke said. “I knew I was coming off the bench, so I just got to see what the other team was doing. Then I just had to play my role, do my part.”
Arkansas did struggle to push the pace without Young, who averaged a team-high 15.3 points last season. The Razorbacks shot 43.1 percent (22 of 51) from the field and, while collecting 20 points off turnovers, had only eight fast break points.
But the Razorbacks won thanks largely to their performance at the free-throw line, going 26-for-32 (81.3 percent). In addition to Clarke’s efforts at the stripe, guard Mardracus Wade went 8-for-10 as well. It included a stretch of seven straight that helped stabilize the Razorbacks after a rough start to the second half.
“Coach Anderson, he’s a little bit like us. He’s got eight new guys on the floor,” Sam Houston State coach Jason Hooten said. “They’re going to have a really good team.
“Just like us, I think they’re trying to feel their way around.”
But Arkansas will have some time to work out the kinks, too, with an eight-day break between games. The Razorbacks play Longwood in Bud Walton Arena on Nov. 18. Arkansas should have Young back on the court with them as well.
“It’s going to give us a boost,” Clarke said. “He’s one of our guys. He’s one of our brothers. … He had to serve his time and hopefully he’ll be back next game.”