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story.lead_photo.caption Daniel Gafford of Arkansas shoots as Charles Bassey of Western Kentucky defends in the second half of a game Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. - Photo by Ben Goff

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Ten weeks after the University of Arkansas men's basketball team was picked to finish 10th in the SEC in a preseason media poll, the Razorbacks open conference play today against Texas A&M in Reed Arena.

"I don't really know where we fit in," forward Daniel Gafford said when asked about his team and the SEC championship race. "I feel like we're one of the best teams out there, in my opinion. And basically like one of our players says when we get in the huddle, 'They're always counting us out.'

"So we've got a lot of things to prove, and we've got a lot of basketball to play."

This is the first of 18 SEC games for the Razorbacks (9-3), who like the Aggies (6-5) are depending heavily on newcomers or returning players elevated to key roles.

Gafford and Texas A&M sophomore guard TJ Starks are the only two starters left from last season's game in Reed Arena that the Aggies won 80-66.

The only returning Razorback besides Gafford who played in the game was sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien, who got in for one minute. Along with Starks, the only Texas A&M returnees to play in the game were sophomores Savion Flagg and Jay Jay Chandler -- now both starters -- for a combined 16 minutes.

"Ready or not, here we come," Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. "I think our schedule has built us up ready for it.

"We've played a variety of different teams, teams that play mid-tempo, teams that play uptempo, teams that really get after it.

"We've played some pretty good basketball teams. We'll find out more about ourselves as we get ready to step into conference play. This our 13th game, so we'll be ready."

The Razorbacks went into SEC play last season with a 10-2 record -- including victories over Oklahoma and Minnesota, and losses to North Carolina and Houston -- but Gafford said he learned about the difference in conference play in Arkansas' 95-93 overtime victory against Tennessee in Walton Arena.

"I wasn't ready for last year when it came to SEC play, because nonconference we ran through people," Gafford said. "Then SEC play, first game we played with Tennessee, the physicality of it was way different than nonconference because everybody's playing for something.

"So I just had to step it up. That's basically what the young guys are going to have to do. They're going to have to step it up and be ready, understand the fact that not every foul is going to be called. There's going to be a lot of pushing around and stuff.

"Everybody's going to try to punk them. But we've just got to come back and hit them hard ourselves."

Among the nine Razorbacks who have played in every game, six are newcomers with no previous SEC experience -- including three starters in sophomore guards Jalen Harris and Mason Jones, and freshman guard Isaiah Joe.

"We talk about the intensity that takes place in conference play," Anderson said. "It goes up 20 notches, I think. Our young guys, they're going to get their eyes opened right off the bat as we go on the road."

The SEC has four nationally ranked teams in No. 3 Tennessee, No. 12 Auburn, No. 13 Kentucky and No. 17 Mississippi State, but Anderson believes the conference is strong top to bottom.

Auburn and Tennessee were co-champions last season after being picked to finish 11th and 13th, respectively, and were among eight SEC teams -- including Arkansas -- to play in the NCAA Tournament.

"It's basketball season in full gear," Anderson said. "Conference time signifies that the race is on. There's a championship that each and every team is going to be chasing, and I think it's wide open.

"The most experienced teams are the teams that are playing well. With our team, with a lot of newcomers, we're still trying to find that identity. We want to play a lot of uptempo, in-your-face pressure defense for 40 minutes. But when you get to conference time, no matter what the tempo is, you want to find a way to to win."

Sports on 01/05/2019

Print Headline: Conference call: Hogs say SEC play brings new mindset

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