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story.lead_photo.caption Western Kentucky center Charles Bassey (23) drives while guarded by Central Florida forward Chad Brown (21) during an NCAA college basketball game in the Myrtle Beach Invitational on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Conway, S.C. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via AP)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Thirteen NBA scouts requested credentials for the University of Arkansas' basketball game against Western Kentucky today in Walton Arena.

The scouts want to see Arkansas' 6-11 sophomore Daniel Gafford from El Dorado go against WKU's 6-11 freshman Charles Bassey from Lagos, Nigeria.

"It's going to be a tremendous matchup," Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said. "Two big guys that are really mobile and agile."

It might be the best matchup of big men at an Arkansas home game in 35 seasons -- since the Razorbacks' Joe Kleine and another big man from Lagos went at it in a battle of 7-footers in Barnhill Arena.

Lagos also is the hometown of Hakeem Olajuwon, who played for the University of Houston and against Arkansas for three seasons in the Southwest Conference days before going on to NBA stardom with the Houston Rockets.

The last time Olajuwon played at Arkansas on March 4, 1984, the Razorbacks upset the No. 2 Cougars 73-68 before a packed crowd of 9,438. The loss broke Houston's 39-game SWC winning streak in the process.

Kleine scored 22 points in 39 minutes and hit 10 of 10 free throws. His play inside created problems for Olajuwon, who fouled out with six minutes to play after scoring 10 points in 33 minutes.

"All games in Barnhill felt intense because of the atmosphere," Kleine said. "But in that game all 40 minutes felt like the last two minutes of a game."

Olajuwon was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft and played 17 seasons in the NBA. Kleine, the No. 6 pick in the 1985 draft by Sacramento, played 15 seasons in the NBA.

Kleine, a fifth-year senior at Arkansas who transferred after his freshman season at Notre Dame, was 23 as an NBA rookie. Olajuwon was 22.

Times have changed with modern-day players leaving for college earlier.

Gafford, 20, and Bassey, 18, are both projected as first-round picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

"The way I handle that is just not really thinking about it," Gafford said of the attention from NBA scouts. "I'm here to play and do the things I'm supposed to do on the court, and that's as a Razorback.

"I can worry about the NBA scouts after the season."

Bassey, like Gafford, said he's focused on being a college player and not on the NBA.

"That's the goal for every player," Bassey told the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News of playing in the NBA. "But right now, I'm about the team, WKU, what we've got to do to get better every time."

Gafford is averaging 18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocked shots and 26.1 minutes. He's shooting 68.0 percent (51 of 75) from the field and 58.7 percent (29 of 50) on free throws.

In the Razorbacks' most notable victory this season -- 73-72 against Indiana -- Gafford had a career-high 27 points and 12 rebounds.

"We know Daniel's got to be the centerpiece for us," Anderson said. "We're going to start inside out."

Kleine, who lives in Little Rock, said he won't be able to attend today's game, but he's anxious to watch on television to see how Gafford does against Bassey.

"The first thing you want to see Daniel do is defend [Bassey] without fouling," Kleine said. "Then offensively -- if it's not a lob or a dunk-- you want to see Daniel be effective maneuvering a guy that's close to his size and strength to where he can use post moves for baskets.

"When Daniel is double-teamed, can he read it and make the right pass?"

Bassey is averaging 13.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocked shots and 30.0 minutes. He's shooting 60.0 percent from the field (39 of 65) and 67.4 percent (29 of 43) on free throws.

"He's the one guy that's really been consistent and really been productive with everything he does," WKU Coach Rick Stansbury said. "I have zero questions with everything he's doing."

Bassey had 13 points and 15 rebounds in the Hilltoppers' 63-57 victory over West Virginia in the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Invitational. In WKU's next game in the tournament against Central Florida, he had 25 points and 10 rebounds in a 78-62 loss to the Knights.

"I was really impressed," UCF Coach Johnny Dawkins told the Daily News. "He doesn't play like a freshman. That's a grown man down there."

Gafford said he's never played against Bassey -- who moved from Nigeria to the United States when he was 14 to focus on basketball and played at high schools in San Antonio and Louisville, Ky. -- but knows he's in for a challenge today.

"He's a really good player," Gafford said."So I'm going to have to come out with my A game."

Gafford had 12 turnovers in his first two games against Texas and California-Davis, but he's had just 10 over the next five games.

"Mike and the coaching staff have done a nice job helping Daniel adjust to all the attention he's getting from the defense," Kleine said. "You can tell he's making better decisions with the ball now."

Kleine said he's also been impressed by Gafford's improvements on offense, especially being able to make more post moves over his left shoulder and hit shots further from the basket.

"I like the way he's catching the ball and going right to a move," Kleine said. "I've seen him do that more this year. That's good coaching by Mike and his assistants."

When Gafford gets the ball inside, he's also doing a better job of sealing off his opponent.

"I remember Coach [Eddie] Sutton teaching me that, because as a post-up player they're trying to get in front of you and then you're trying to get in front of them," Kleine said. "Then the next thing you know, you're posting up 12 feet from the basket.

"Coach Sutton used to tell me, 'Let them front you, and when we reverse the ball, you've got 'em.'

"I see a lot of that in what Mike has done with Daniel. He knows they're going to work the ball to him, so he doesn't go chasing it, and a lot of times that helps him get really, really good position.

"When they bring the ball to him, and he's already there. That's when he can seal and lay on somebody and get a dunk."

Sports on 12/08/2018

Print Headline: Big players a main attraction at Razorbacks game

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