Arkansas (7-0) vs. Austin Peay (3-3) game preview: Will Mason Jones be available for Small-ball-palooza?

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics/@RazorbackMBB

LITTLE ROCK — Each team has only one player standing at least 6-foot-8 who is playing more than 10 minutes per game, but don’t confuse lack of size with an absence of sizeable results when the Arkansas Razorbacks and Austin Peay Governors do battle in a mid-week non-conference game in Fayetteville.

Arkansas (7-0) is set to host Austin Peay (3-3) at 7 p.m. CT Tuesday on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in a game that can be seen via live-stream on SEC Network Plus.

The Hogs — one of only 20 remaining unbeaten teams in NCAA Division 1 basketball — are off to the their best start to a season in 22 years (1997-98 began 8-0), and despite some defensive lapses in a tight 66-60 win Saturday against upset-minded Northern Kentucky, the Hogs remain top 10 nationally in multiple defensive categories. The Governors are one of the top scoring teams in the country (82.5 points per game), and perhaps a bit surprising for a smallish team is that Austin Peay ranks 18th nationally with 13.8 offensive rebounds per game, and the Governors are 17th nationally in free throw rate.

But matchups and team strengths aside, the elephant-in-the-room question that was asked first of head coach Eric Musselman during his Monday press conference was one whose answer will go a long way toward impacting both team’s chances: Will Mason Jones be available to play after missing the NKU game with what was described as an “A.C. sprain” affecting his right shoulder?

“He’s going to try to practice (Monday),” Musselman said of the team’s leading scorer. “Probably not do any contact stuff. Right now its not bothering him shooting. It’s bothering him defensively a little bit when he puts his arm a certain way. The good thing is if he plays we need his shooting more than we need his defense. So, I think it will be a game-time decision, but he is going to go through non-contact stuff (Monday).”

In his last game action, Jones banked in a buzzer-beating 35-foot three-pointer with :00.1 remaining in overtime to drop host Georgia Tech, 62-61, on Nov. 25. He scored a game-high 24 points — including the Hogs’ final 10 points — in that road win over the Yellow Jackets. He’s averaging 18.5 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, a team-best 2.7 steals, and 2.2 assists while shooting 50.0% field goals (including 29.0% from 3) and a team-leading 91.9% at the free throw line.

In Jones’s absence against NKU, senior-graduate transfer guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and sophomore guard Desi Sills picked up the scoring slack with a combined 41 points — ALL coming inside the 3-point line. Whitt tied his career-high with 24 points to go with 9 rebounds while Sills scored a season-high 17 points (one point shy of his career-high from a season ago).

Whitt has scored 24 points three times in his career, including in back-to-back games played at Bud Walton Arena. His early-season numbers have been quietly outstanding: 14.7 points per game (53.8% field goal shooting), a team-best 6.0 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, and only 1.1 turnovers per game as the team’s primary ball-hanlder playing 34.6 minutes per game.

Preseason All SEC pick and sophomore guard Isaiah Joe has been in a bit of a shooting funk of late — he was 2-of-10 (including 2-of-9 from 3) shooting while finishing with 10 points and 4 assists in 39 minutes against NKU. Joe is second on the team in scoring (15.7 points per game) and he leads the squad in assists (3.1) to go with 2.0 steals per game. His shooting is down from a season ago — 35.4% overall field goals, including 22-of-66 from 3 for 33.3% — although his free throw shooting is improved (20-of-25 for 80.0%).

The Razorbacks got a significant contirbution in minutes and production from reserves Reggie Chaney and Jalen Harris in the win over NKU. Chaney (6-8 sophomore forward) played a season-high 25 minutes and had 6 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, and a career-high 5 assists. Harris played a season-high 35 minutes and finished with 5 points (including 1-of-2 shooting from 3), a game-high-tying 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal.

Should Jones be unavailable tonight against Austin Peay, Chaney could get his first start of the season. Senior-graduate transfer Jeantal Cylla got the start in Jones’s place against the Norse but played sparingly.

“Yeah, if he (Jones) doesn’t play I’m still trying to figure that out whether we’ll play Cylla there again or go with Reggie,” Musselman said. “Those would be the two, you know the two players that we would probably have to announce right before tip-off.”

Musselman was displeased with his team’s defensive performance against NKU on Saturday. Arkansas gave up 8-of-24 three-point shooting (33.3%) to the Norse, more than doubling the previous single-game high-water mark from distance by a Hogs’ opponent in ’19-20. Still, Arkansas maintains the top 3-point field goal shooting defense in the nation, yielding only 21-of-117 from distance for 17.9%. The Hogs are No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (51.4 points per game), No. 5 in turnover margin (plus-7.6 per game), No. 5 in steals per game (11.0), No. 7 in turnovers forced per game (20.1), and No. 10 in overal field goal defense (35.5%).

Offensively, the Hogs hope to get on track as they’re roughly midway through their non-conference schedule. Arkansas — shooting 40-of-126 from 3 for 25.6% on the season — was 3-of-18 from 3 for 16.7% against the Norse, but the Hogs did manage to shoot 20-of-37 inside the arc (54.1%) while outscoring NKU 38-18 in the paint. The Hogs also has 18 assists on their 23 made field goals.

Like Arkansas, Austin Peay does not trot a lot size onto the court. Junior 6-5 guard Terry Taylor is averaging team-highs in scoring (23.3 points per game) and rebounding (9.2 boards per game) to go with 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 56.4% field goals, including 32.1% from 3, plus 63.0% free throws in 35.5 minutes. Freshman 6-3 guard Jordyn Adams is averaging 15.5 points, 3.8 reounds, and 1.8 assists in 31.0 minutes per game. Guards Reginald Gee (6-3 senior), Antwun Butler (6-0 sophomore), and Eli Abaev (6-8 junior) are each playing north of 20 minutes per game. The Governors’ two bigs — Sam DeVault (6-10) and Sita Conteh (6-8) — combined to average 16.7 minutes of playing time.

“They have two really, really offensive efficient players,” Musselman said. “Especially Taylor … ninth in the NCAA in points per game and 10th in the NCAA in offensive rebounds.  Both Taylor and Adams are players that seem to draw fouls and get extra points on the foul line as well. So obviously defending Taylor is going to be a really important part defensively for our basketball team and keeping him off the glass and then our post defense as well.”

Following the Austin Peay matchup, Arkansas will travel to Bowling Green, Ky., for its second road game of the season — a Saturday tilt at Western Kentucky that is set to tip at 6:30 p.m. CT in a game being televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.

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