Arkansas (1-0) vs. North Texas (1-1) game preview: Mean Green looking for another upset bid

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — It’s not always about who you play but when you play, and for the Arkansas Razorbacks their second opponent of the 2019-20 season, North Texas, could pose an early-season upset threat as the two teams meet for a mid-week non-conference game.

Arkansas (1-0) will host North Texas (1-1) at 7 p.m. CT Tuesday on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in a game that can be seen via live-stream on SEC Plus.

The Mean Green have enjoyed back-to-back 20-win seasons, and most of the program’s wins have been racked up during the first two-thirds of the season before faltering down the stretch in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. Last season, North Texas started 20-4 (8-3 in Conference USA) before losing 8 of its last 9 games to finish 21-12. The Mean Green had a similar end-of-regular-season stumble in ’17-18 before managing a late season run to win the postseason College Basketball Invitation tournament while finishing 20-18.

On Friday, the ’19-20 version of North Texas went on the road and barely missed on an upset opportunity, falling 59-56 at No. 25 Virginia Commonwealth.  

“North Texas, they’ll shoot a lot of threes,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his press conference on Thursday. “Obviously, they have a grad transfer on the inside that gives them some size. They have three returners back from last year. Coach Grant (McCasland) does a really really good job. We’ve seen, even defending baseline out-of-bounds, the way they defend with their inbounder, instead of having him guard the ball, at times we’ve seen that inbound defender sag all the way out off in the lane. It’s almost like you are going against, when you’re inbounding the ball, that guy’s not on the floor, so you are going five against four the way that they have their defense set up. So, it’s going to be important just to get the ball in. If they go to that type of defense where that guy on the ball is really off in the lane to give them an extra defender. I probably gave away too much stuff, but it’s all good.”

Offensively, North Texas is shooting well as a team from the field — 50.5% field goals including 39.5% from 3 — but the Mean Green have struggled at the free throw line shooting only 61.5%. Junior big man Zachary Simmons (6-10, 235) leads North Texas in scoring (12.0 points) and rebounding (6.0) while shooting 55.6% from the field. He teams up inside with Thomas Bell (6-6 junior forward averaging 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds) to give the Mean Green a potential matchup advantage in the paint against Arkansas’s smallish frontline that is short on depth. Senior guard DJ Draper is averaging 10.5 points on 7-of-10 field goal shooting, all from beyond the arc.

For Arkansas, the plan to counter any interior edge that North Texas might have includes another 1-2 perimeter punch from 6-5 guards Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe, who combined for 56 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Hogs’ season-opening 91-43 win over Rice last Tuesday that tipped off the Musselman era in Fayetteville.

Jones was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after having career-highs in points (32), field-goal makes (12), field-goal attempts (18), and steals (5) to go with 7 rebounds and 3 assists in that 48-point win over the Owls. Joe — named preseason 2nd team All SEC by the media and the league’s coaches — finished with 24 points, a career-high 7 assists, and 5 rebounds against Rice.

Arkansas’s backcourt trio of Desi SillsJalen Harris, and Jimmy Whitt, Jr., combined for solid floor games at both ends, and senior forward Adrio Bailey helped offset the absence of indefinitely suspended sophomore forward Reggie Chaney by contributing 8 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, and a block in his 21 minutes of playing time.

It’s unclear whether or not Chaney will play against North Texas, but as of Thursday the Head Hog was saying his status had not changed.

“Reggie, behind closed doors, it’s our decision making,” Musselman said. “The same status as it was going into the last game. We’ll kind of let everybody know when that changes, but right now that’s kind of where it’s at … He and I are talking all the time. He’s practicing hard. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do, which is be focused and getting his reps in. He bounces back and forth between the scout team and the second group. He’s learning our new plays or our new schemes that we’re adding for North Texas. He’s been great. He’s really working hard. “

As a team, Arkansas trailed Rice early, 8-6, but dominated offensively and defensively the rest of the way in winning the glass (45-27), assists (19-7), turnovers (27-21), and fast-breal points (30-15). The Hogs shot 55.2% from the field, including 40% from 3, while holding the Owls to 28.6% field goal shooting — a number that included an abysmal 2-of-25 from 3 for 8.0% from a team that saw its four leading returning scorers shoot nearly 39% from distance on 553 attempts in ’18-19.

After facing North Texas — the Hogs’ second C-USA opponent to start the season — Arkansas will host Montana of the Big Sky Conference on Saturday in a matchup that will be the first of four home games in November that are being billed as the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow event. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. CT and the game can be seen via live-stream on SEC Plus. Montana has particiapated in two consecutive NCAA tournaments (’17-18 and ’18-19).

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