By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — With their first heavy lift of the season accomplished, the Arkansas Razorbacks return home to add more weight for their next attempt as No. 12 Missouri comes to Fayetteville for an early SEC showdown on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena.
For the Hogs, the Tigers (6-1, 0-1 SEC) represent not only their first test against a ranked team in 2020-21, but a win puts Arkansas (9-0, 1-0 SEC) side-by-side with the ’93-94 national championship Hogs in terms of an unbeaten start through the first 10 games of the season — something no other Razorbacks squad has managed in the past 27 years. Add to it that a win would assure Arkansas a spot in the next Associated Press Top 25 rankings poll — which would be a first in three years — that is due to come out on Monday. It’s also worth mentioning that a win would give second-year head coach Eric Musselman his 30th victory as Head Hog.
Top it off with the fact it marks Arkansas’ first CBS-nationally-televised game in years (11 a.m. CT tip). So many compelling factors that make this one of the biggest games in recent Razorbacks history.
Too much weight for the Hogs to lift?
“I’m dead silent,” Musselman said Thursday when asked his thoughts about comparing historical season-starts with the ’93-94 title Hogs. “I’m just worried, how do we play well against Missouri. Because even when you play well against this team it is hard to win the game. So we have to play our A game to be in the game against a team that’s ranked in the top 15.”
Arkansas had bulldozed its way to 8-0 at home in November and December against inferior low- and mid-major programs before passing the first real test of the season on the road against Auburn, 97-85, in the SEC opener on Wednesday. In a fast, end-to-end matchup that saw the two teams combine for 24 made three-pointers as the scoreboard lit up like a pinball machine, the game turned during a 6-minute span in the final stretch of the game when things slowed down to a grinding, every-possession-matters affair with the Hogs controlling both ends of the floor.
Arkansas turned a 74-all tie at 7:30 into an 84-74 lead at 3:23 by forcing three Auburn turnovers and holding the Tigers to 0-of-2 field goals, while on offense the Hogs attacked the paint and the rim, finishing from close range or getting to the free throw line. And after Auburn responded with a quick 5-0 mini-spurt, Arkansas answered in kind with its own 5-0 run — on 5-of-5 free throw shooting — to quickly extend back to a 10-point lead, 89-79, that effectively put the game away with 1:21 remaining.
“It was important,” Musselman said of the impact of the Hogs’ late run. “Especially with (junior guard) JD Notae, because I think right around the time of that 10-0 run, JD took an absurd shot from 3-point land that was about at the logo. I didn’t really have to say anything. His teammates told him, ‘Come on, are you for real on that shot? Really?’ At that point, I just kind of interjected, ‘Hey, let’s take this thing to the cup,’ just because Auburn’s shooting threes and converting at a high rate, let’s get to the free throw line, let’s try to stay in the bonus, let’s put pressure on the rim. I thought JD got some quick looks in transition going to the basket. Then I thought as we kind of milked the shot clock down the stretch, we got some really, really quality looks. Desi got fouled at the end of a shot clock, JD got fouled at the end of the shot clock I think. Connor got a dunk at the end of a shot clock. So I think our clock management with the guys on the floor was really, really good that last seven or eight minutes of the game.”
Trial by fire worked for Arkansas at Auburn in a matchup that served as both the Hogs’ first road game of the season AND their first tilt against a high-major opponent. Mizzou presents bigger challenges, though, in that these veteran Tigers — unlike Auburn’s young Tigers — bring a been-there-done-that quality to add to their talent-and-depth combination that has not only been through many SEC battles in previous seasons, but has so far in ’20-21 beaten two ranked teams (Oregon and Illinois), won on the road by 10 points against Wichita State, and went unscathed through their first six games before slamming into No. 7 Tennessee’s wall (defense) while getting spanked at home, 73-53, in their league opener on Wednesday.
On a national stage, Arkansas-v-Mizzou offers the Hogs their first shot at national relevance in years while the Tigers look to bounce back and restore some shine to an upstart, national Top 15 beginning to ’20-21.
Scouting the Missouri Tigers
Missouri’s resume is impressive enough with the aforementioned wins over ranked Oregon and Illinois teams as well as the 10-point road win against Wichita State, but two more wins against respectable mid-majors Liberty and Bradley add to the quality of the Tiger’s non-conference work. The lopsided loss at home against Tennessee likely will not faze this veteran Mizzou team that understands a quick bounce-back at Arkansas would be a righting-the-ship fix.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin once again has a gritty squad that has held unranked opponents to just 59.8 points per game this season. Last year, Mizzou was a tough out for Arkansas as the teams split with each winning at home — the Tigers 83-79 in overtime, then the Hogs 78-68 — in game’s played just two weeks apart in February.
The Tigers were competitive in ’19-20 but often played without injured starters in big man Jermeiah Tilmon and shooting guard / wing Mark Smith. Neither played in the two games against Arkansas, while the Hogs’ star guard Isaiah Joe was out with a knee injury when Arkansas lost at Mizzou.
Joe has moved on to the NBA as the Hogs have found new pieces to fill his and ’19-20 Co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones’ departures, while the Tigers returned both Smith (12.7 points in 30.0 minutes per game while shooting 43.8% from 3 and 85.2% from the free throw line) and Tilmon (8.3 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game while shooting 56.8% from the field) to go with talented veteran guards Xavier Pinson (team-high 13.9 points to go with 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game) and Dru Smith (12.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2.0 steals in 31.9 minutes per game while shooting 43.8% from the field and 88.5% from the free throw line).
Additionally, the Tigers have veteran depth as 8 players are averaging at least 14.0 minutes per game. Guards Javon Pickett and Drew Buggs and forwards Mitchell Smith of Van Buren and Kobe Brown all factor in with significant roles and impact.
As a team, the Tigers are an unimpressive 27.3% shooting from 3, but Mark Smith can change the complexion of a game with his efficiency from distance. Mizzou averages a modest 71.9 points per game while also registering 38.4 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 5.3 steals, 2.4 blocks, and 13.7 turnovers while shooting 43.8% overall from the field and 72.7% from the free throw line. On offense, the Tigers attack the paint and rim as they seek to finish high percentage shots or get to the free throw line, where they are tied for 1st in the SEC in free throws attempted per game (23.6), and they dictate tempo to slow the game down and make it a physical, grinding affair, which aides the defensive side of the ball.
Hog trends and stats
* While Missouri looks to slow the pace, Arkansas comes in with the SEC’s top scoring offense at 90.8 points per game (ranks 10th nationally). Led by freshman guard and Little Rock native Moses Moody‘s 16.8 points per game the Hogs have five players averaging double-figures scoring with a sixth in 7-3 stretch-5 and Little Rock native Connor Vanoverclosing in with 9.6 points per outing. Where Mizzou is pedestrian statistically, the Hogs get high marks in rebounds at 45.2 boards per game that is tops in the SEC and ranks 4th nationally, rebounding margin at plus-11.8 per game that is tops in the SEC and ranks 10th nationally, assists at 16.6 per game that is tops in the SEC, and blocked shots at 6.1 per game that ranks 2nd in the SEC and 7th nationally.
* Speaking of injuries impacting the Arkansas-Missouri series, the Hogs played the second half at Auburn without senior combo forward Justin Smith, who suffered a right foot/ankle injury in transition in the first half. Smith was helped off the court but was putting pressure on both feetm, then he returned to the game, but at halftime he was fitted with a walking boot and returned to the Arkansas bench where he sat for the entire second half. It remains unclear if Smith will be available to play against Mizzou.
“He’s sore,” Musselman said on Thursday. “There’s nothing that’s long-term, meaning there’s nothing to my knowledge as of today that’s broken or anything like that. But he’s really swollen and really sore. It’s probably not worth speculating one way or the other, because we’re under 24 hours from when the injury [happened], but it’s a deep bone bruise.”
Smith is Arkansas’ primary interior threat at both ends of the floor, averaging 11.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game. It was a combination of Notae, freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis, and one quality minute from junior forward Ethan Hendersonthat picked up the slack in Smith’s second-half absence at Auburn. Last season, Musselman did not have the depth or size on the bench to counter an injury like that.
* Musselman, in his 6th season as a head coach at the NCAA Division 1 level, is 29-12 at Arkansas, a record that includes 20-1 in non-conference games and 9-11 in SEC games.
* Arkansas’ stingy three-point field-goal-percentage — 27.2% that led the nation in ’19-20, and 27.5% entering SEC play on Wednesday — took a major hit against Auburn, which made a blistering 15-of-29 for 51.7% as the Hogs were slow to get back in transition defense and slow to close out on shooters. Arkansas cannot take comfort in the fact that Mizzou is a subpar three-point shooting team as another lethargic effort could help propel the Tigers to a break-out game shooting from distance. But for the record, the disparities between the two teams shooting the three-ball are striking: Arkansas’ 89 makes are the second-most in the league (compared to Mizzou’s 41 makes ranking 10th), and the Razorbacks’ 34.6% three-point shooting percentage ranks 5th in the SEC (compared to the Tigers’ 27.3% ranking 12th).
* Despite being a rebounding juggernaut so far in ’20-21, Arkansas and Auburn battled to a 34-all tie on the glass in their matchup on Wednesday. What helped Arkansas overcome that draw was its dominance scoring in the paint (36-20 for plus-16) while making better than 62% of their shots inside the 3-point arc, and the Hogs were plus-9 in the turnover department (19-10) while cashing in the takeaways for a sizeable advantage in points-off-turnovers (27-11). Arkansas was the superior free throw shooting team, too, making 24-of-31 for 77.4% compared to Auburn’s 14-of-24 effort for 58.3%.
* In the win at Auburn, Moody continued to show why he’s the Hogs’ best player and arguably the best freshman in the SEC. A one-time league freshman of the week honoree, Moody continued his streak of scoring in double-figures in every game as a Hog with 16 points (4-of-11 field goals, including 2-of-6 from 3, and 6-of-6 free throws) to go with a team-high-matching 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist in a team-high 39 minutes. The 6-6 shooting guard started hot, making his first three shot attempts (including 2-of-2 from 3), but even when the shots weren’t falling it was his usual presence and effort throughout battling for rebounds, putbacks, and manufacturing free throw attempts (where he was perfect) that all played into the winning equation on the road. His 16.8 points per game ranks 6th in the SEC and is 2nd among league freshmen, and his 5.7 rebounds (3rd in the team) makes him the only SEC freshman to average at least 15 points and 5 rebounds per game.
* Vanover had a nice bounce-back game at both ends of the floor with 17 points on 5-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-6 from 3, and a clutch 6-of-6 effort from the free throw line to go with 5 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal in 26 minutes. In his two previous outings combined, Vanover managed totals of only 10 points and 7 rebounds with no blocked shots and no steals. Vanover’s putbacks and impact on the defensive end (both inside and out), plus his perfection at the line late, were significant contributions to the road win. Vanover has not missed a free throw all season (12-of-12). In addition to his 9.6 points per game, Vanover leads the team and is 8th in the league in rebounding at 7.3, and he leads the team and is 2nd in the league in blocked shots at 2.3.
* Desi Sills of Jonesboro and Notae — both 6-1 junior guards — are making a convincing case as the best opening-and-closing act in college basketball. At Auburn, Sills scored 16 of his career-high 23 points in the first half before Notae worked his familiar second-half mojo to score 19 of his 21 points. That’s been a common theme of late: In Arkansas’ previous win over Abilene Christian on Dec. 22, Sills scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half while Notae put in 17 of his 19 points in the second half. Notae, arguably the best 6th man in the SEC, has averaged 19.3 points off the bench in Arkansas’ last four games, with 68 of his total 77 points in that stretch coming in the second half.
Back to the Auburn win: Sills and Notae brought more to the table than just scoring. Sills grabbed a team-high-matching 6 rebounds to go with 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block in 35 minutes, while Notae collected a game-high 4 steals to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks in 27 minutes. Those are the numbers, but the eye test reveals that Sills is one of the most fearless paint-and-rim attackers in college hoops, and combined with his effective spot-up three-point shooting he’s a dual-threat offensively. Notae is slithery in how he probes and drives to the basket, and he too is tough to defend because he’s unafraid to pull from three and typically reels off 2-3 makes in bang-bang-bang fashion, which keeps defenses guessing, and worried.
Notae is averaging 15.0 points, second on the team and 8th in the SEC, to go with 3.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 steals in 22.4 minutes off the bench. Sills is averaging 14.1 points, 3rd on the team and 13th in the SEC, to go with 4.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and a league-most 17 steals in 27.3 minutes per game while shooting 52.9% from the field, including 15-of-36 from 3 for 41.7%.
* If Moody, Notae, and Sills all finish the season ranked as they are now — in the top 15 in scoring average in the SEC — the Hogs will have accomplished having three players among the league’s top 15 scorers for the second consecutive season (Jones, Joe, and Jimmy Whitt, Jr., managed the feat in ’19-20).
* At Auburn, senior guard Jalen Tate had another nice all-around floor game with 12 points (5-of-8 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), a team-high 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in 29 minutes. What makes Tate so effective is the maturity and nuance in his ball skill, such as using ball fakes to move defenders and allow him to surgically get to his finishing spots. He also has a facilitator-first mentality, so when defenders shift to help on his drives he’s quick to deliver good passes to set teammates up with clean finishing opportunities. Defensively, his ability to create drawn charges is Isaiah Joe-esque, and that craft was on impressive display Wednesday at Auburn. Tate is 5th on the team in scoring at 10.1 points per game, he leads the team and is 4th in the SEC in assists at 4.6 dimes per game (against only 2.3 turnovers per outing), he’s 4th on the team in reobunding (4.4). He’s been a plus-efficency shooter, too, with 52.1% from the field, including 36.8% from 3, and 71.4% at the free throw line.
* Davis‘ stat line against Auburn — 4 points (2-of-3 field goals), 2 steals, 1 rebound, and 1 assist in 13 minutes — is but a mere fraction of the impact he had in the road victory. Let’s start with his 4 deflections that led to winning plays while altering the course of the game in Arkansas’s favor. Much of that was detailed above, and at the end of the day the fact Davis was on the floor and in the mix during crunch time on the road in the SEC tells us he has created a valuable niche for himself while embracing an unselfish role. Kudos to freshmen who get where he has just nine games into his rookie season.
Analytics, polls, NCAAT projections
Arkansas entered Friday ranked No. 16 in Sagarin / USA Today ratings, No. 23 in ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index), and No. 28 in KenPom.com’s rankings. In ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s update on Friday (Jan. 1, 2021) to his projected 68-team NCAA tournament field, he slotted the Hogs as a 6-seed, a 2-spot move-up from Tuesday (Dec. 29, 2020). This week (Monday, Dec. 21), the Hogs received 55 voter points in the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 poll voted on by 65 media members that cover college basketball, which was 1 point more than the previous week and effectively put the Hogs at No. 29 nationally. The NCAA’s initial NET rankings for ’20-21 have yet to be released but are expected to debut on Jan. 4.