Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman came into town notorious for his pace-and-space offense, but so far it’s been his Hogs’ suffocating defense squeezing all the pace-and-space life out of opponents that has caused an excited stir in Fayetteville.
For the third straight game to start the season, Arkansas (3-0) held an opponent below 50 points while limiting it to sub-35% field goal shooting and sub-15% three-point shooting as the Hogs put down two-time defending Big Sky champion Montana, 64-46, on Saturday on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena. It was the first of four home games in November being billed as the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow.
The last time the Razorbacks held three consecutive opponents under 50 points each was February 1984, and the last time they held their first three opponents to start a season under 50 points each was during the 1945-46 seasom (all historical data courtesy of Hogstats.com). Arkansas came into Saturday’s game with a NCAA Division 1-best 3-point defense, and once again the perimeter defense held up while yielding only 2-of-16 from distance (12.5%). On the young season, the Hogs have been stingy in surrendering a combined 6-of-58 from 3 for 10.3%. Overall, the Hogs held the Grizzlies — winners of 26 games a season ago en route to their second straight NCAA tournament — to 18-of-55 from the field for 32.7%.
“They’ve really bought in to the game plan defensively,” said Musselman, whose 3-0 start is the best at Arkansas since Nolan Richardson did the same in 1985-86, per Hogstats.com. “Hopefully we can keep buying in on a nightly basis, but I think they really like playing defense. I think they’ve really quickly got a grasp of what we’re trying to do defensively. There’s areas we have to get better in some areas, as well. I think contesting shots and understanding the importance of every defensive possession, they’ve been really, really good so far.”
Junior wing Mason Jones scored a game-high 19 points — he’s averaging 22.3 points through the first three outings — to go with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 1 block in 36 minutes. Jones made all eight of his free throw attempts to remain perfect from the charity stripe on the season (now 21-of-21).
“My confidence level is probably about as high as its ever been because of all the work I put in in the summer and all the work I put in leading up to this season is all showing,” Jones said. “I know I went 1 for 5 (from 3), that’s not the big deal. We got the win, we grinded out hard and I love how we handle adversity. They went on like a 6-0 run and we came down and scored and put the game away. As long as we continue to do that and play hard and continue to play defense — because that’s what we’re holding our hat on — then we should be good.”
Senior forward Adrio Bailey — the Hogs’ only true frontline presence so far — registered the first double-double of his career with 12 points (4-of-7 field goals and 4-of-6 free throws) and a career-high 11 rebounds.
Bailey was stoic talking about his first-ever college double-double.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that I got it,” Bailey said. “But I want it to be the first of many, not just one game.”
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., scored in double figures for the second straight game as he notched 14 points to go with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 27 minutes. Guards Desi Sills and Jalen Harris combined for 10 points, 6 steals, and 4 rebounds.
Preseason All SEC guard and Fort Smith sophomore Isaiah Joe came in averaging 20.0 points per game but struggled shooting the ball as he managed only 9 points on 2-of-13 field goals (including 2-of-9 from 3) and 3-of-5 free throws. Joe also had 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 37 minutes.
“I thought Isaiah was off the charts good defensively,” Musselman said. “I mean he guarded (Sayeed) Pridgett some, he guarded Manuel who is a transfer from Oregon State and a guy who had some years for the Beavers for Oregon State. Sometimes your shot just doesn’t fall. We didn’t tell him to stop shooting. We wanted him to continue to shoot. But again he rebounded the basketball. I thought he did a really, really great job for us defensively.”
Pridgett, a 6-5 senior wing, came in as the Grizzlies leader in every significant statistical category, but he was held in check finishing 10 points below his averaged at 13 points (on 5-of-12 shooting, well below his 60-plus-percent on the season) to go with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 7 turnovers in 38 minutes. Senior guard Kendal Mauel made both of Montana’s triples — he was 2-of-7 from beyond the arc — as he chipped in 12 points and 5 rebounds in 32 minutes.
“Jimmy Whitt started on him (Pridgett) and guarded him a lot,” Musselman said. “Then Mason went to him about the 10-, 11-minute mark of the second half and did a really, really good job. Then Isaiah was on him some, so that whole group.”
Arkansas lost the rebounding battle (38-36) but won the turnover war (23-13) for the second straight game. After coughing the ball up 21 times in the season-opener against Rice, the Hogs have totaled 23 giveaways combined in their last two outings. Facing a tough Montana halfcourt defense, Arkansas was only 20-of-54 shooting (37.0%), including a second-straight poor 3-point shooting game (4-of-21 for 19.0%). The Razorbacks were solid once again from the free throw line, sinking 20-of-26 for 76.9% — combined with their 20-of-24 effort on freebies earlier in the week against North Texas, the Hogs have made 40 of their 50 attempts for 80%.
Arkansas used a 14-2 run capped by combined 4-of-4 free throw shooting by Jones and Harris to grab a 28-15 lead late in the first half en route to a 31-18 advtantage at the break. It marked the third consectuive game to start the season that the Hogs held their opponent below 20 points in the first 20 minutes of the game.
Montana used a 9-2 spurt behind some close-range scoring from Pridgett to pull within 40-33 at the 12:34 mark of the second half, but the Razorbacks rattled off a 13-2 run that included Joe’s second made triple for a 53-35 lead with 5:45 remaining. Joe would make a pair of free throws with over a minute to play to give the Hogs their biggest lead, 64-44.
Next up for Arkansas is game two of the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow as the Hogs will host Texas Southern at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Bud Walton Arena.