LITTLE ROCK — He may not have been relegated to the doghouse after his Arkansas Razorbacks lost their first game of the season (86-79 in overtime at Western Kentucky last Saturday), but Head Hog Eric Musselman has been counting down the days until he can earn a release from his pool house.
“I’m not a good loser,” Musselman said Thursday during his press conference, playfully adding, “My wife’s got me sleeping in the pool house until we win again.”
After a week-long break between games, Musselman and the Hogs (8-1) will get their chance to reach the winner’s circle again as a good Tulsa squad (8-2) invades Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Saturday in what will be Arkansas’s final home game in December. The matchup is set for a 12:30 p.m. CT tip-off and will be televised nationally by ESPNU.
Arkansas was one of only 11 remaining unbeaten NCAA Division 1 teams and held a 70-64 lead against WKU with under 50 seconds remaining when the Hogs wilted. The Hilltoppers outscored them 22-9 in the final six minutes of the game — a combination of the the last minute of regulation and the 5-minute overtime. In that same span, WKU converted 4 Arkansas turnovers into 10 points.
“I hope we’ll bounce back like we have in the past which is with a lot of energy, a lot of determination, a lot of toughness,” Musselman said. “I hope that’s how we bounce back. We lost on Saturday and I wish we would have played Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, but we had a week between games and hopefully we still have that bad taste in our mouth even though it’s been a little bit of time separating between the Western (Kentucky) game and this game.”
Now, another formidable mid-major opponent from a respected league — Tulsa of the American Athletic Conference — will take its shot at the Hogs. The Golden Hurricane already have one road win over an SEC team on their resume — a 67-58 victory over Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN, on Nov. 30. Tulsa and Arkansas have one common opponent that both teams have already played — Austin Peay — with the Hogs winning, 69-61, earlier this month and the Golden Hurricane also winning, 72-65, in mid-November.
Tulsa had won six consecutive games before losing to Arkansas State, 66-63, last Saturday, but the Golden Hurricane have since bounced back with a win over Boise State.
“Tulsa plays hard, aggressive,” Musselman said. “Defensively they look to try to create steals. They’ll play probably 65 percent zone. Usually start games off in some man and then go zone. They are deep. They play a lot of different guys, play a lot of contributors. Tough, hard-nosed team.”
The Golden Hurricane have eight players averaging between 21.4 minutes and 27.9 minutes per game, led by LSU transfer Brandon Rachel (6-6 junior) who leads the team with 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.2 steals while shooting 56.8% from the field, including 31.3% from 3, and 80.0% from the free throw line. Jeriah Horne (6-7 junior forward who began his career at Nebraska) is averaging 10.2 points and 4.5 rebounds. As a team, Tulsa is averaging 70.7 points, 37.5 rebounds, 14.6 assists, 8.2 steals, and 13.5 turnovers per game while shooting 46.0% from the field, including 33.0% from 3, and 71.4% on free throws.
“Horne last year and this year we feel like he’s a guy when they need a basket they’ll get it to, No. 41 …” Musselman said. “He plays the 3 and the 4 for them. Obviously, the transfer from LSU, No. 0 Rachel, he didn’t play last year. But he’s a really good player that’s kind of a guy who creates offense and defense for them. (Elijah) Joiner played against us (Nevada) at the point last year.
“So they have a lot of pieces back. (Darien) Jackson’s a guy that can really dribble drive and find seams in the defense. Their off guard, 22 (Reggie Jones) can really shoot it. We can’t give him any airspace. (Little Rock native Lawson) Korita, off the bench has been out for three games, No. 5. He can shoot the ball well. He’s a good basket-cutter. And they’re deep. They’re going to play a lot of guys.”
Arkansas’s nationally ranked defense has taken some hits in the last four games — Georgia Tech, Northern Kentucky, Austin Peay, and Western Kentucky — but it remains one of the best in college basketball.
KenPom.com‘s analytics ranks the Hogs’ “adjusted defense” as the 10th-best in the nation. By the statistical numbers (as of Thursday), Arkansas was: No. 2 in 3-point field goal defense (yielding 20.6%), No. 8 in turnovers forced (19.7 per game), No. 10 in scoring defense (yielding 56.3 points per game), No. 13 in turnover margin (plus-5.9 per game), and No. 15 in steals per game (10.0).
As good as the Razorbacks’ perimeter defense has been, WKU exposed Arkansas’s lack of frontline size and depth in the paint with a 46-26 scoring advantage.
“I think it’s a little bit of who we are, especially the way we defend the three-point line,” Musselman said. “Even if we had six 7-footers, if you’re going to defend the three, and take that away from people, it’s going to be hard. You look at NBA teams, it’s the same thing. If you’re a really good take-away-a-three team you’re probably giving something up. And then there’s other teams that have the opposite philosophy where they really, really protect the paint. Then those teams are susceptible to three-point shooting.”
Arkansas’s 5-man guard rotation of Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Jimmy Whitt., Jr., and Jalen Harris has been the backbone of the team, with the first four of those names each averaging double-figures in scoring through nine games.
Jones has battled through a shoulder injury and leads the team in scoring (16.9 points per game), steals (2.0), and free throw shooting (46-of-49 for 93.9%), and he’s second in rebounding (5.9). He’s shooting 47.0% from the field, including 28.2% from 3, while playing 31.5 minutes per game.
Joe — the Hogs’ preseason All SEC pick according to the media and league coaches — is averaging 16.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, a team-leading 2.8 assists, and 1.8 steals while leading the team in 3-pointers made (30-of-90 for 33.3%) in 38.0 minutes per game. Joe made five 3-pointers while scoring 18 points against WKU.
Whitt has been Arkansas’s best scoring threat inside the 3-point-line as he is averaging 14.9 points, a team-leading 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 52.3% from the field and 64.3% from the free throw line in 35.9 minutes per game. Whitt had his second double-double of the season — 17 points and 12 rebounds — against WKU.
Sills had a career-high 20 points against WKU, and he’s averaging 10.4 points and 2.9 rebounds in 31.1 minutes per game. He’s had his struggles shooting from 3 (7-of-42 for 16.7% on the season), but he’s thawed out in the last two games making a combined 5-of-12 for 41.7%. Sills has made 30-of-46 for 65.2% inside the 3-point-line.
“You know the thing, and I’ve talked to Desi about it: I’ve just been so impressed with how when the shots weren’t falling he got to the basket and now teams are kind of playing him for the dribble drive and that’s opened up his three-point shooting where people aren’t crowding him as much,” Musselman said. “He had a career night the other night. Hopefully that really, really helps his confidence.
“You look at the last two games and he’s shooting a good percentage. Even the ones he misses you think they’re going in.”
Harris has been the Hogs’ most reliable reserve playing off the bench. He’s averaging 5.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.1 steals in 23.3 minutes per game. His 7-of-21 shooting from 3 for 33.3% is a vast improvement compared to his perimeter shooting from a season ago when in 34 games he was 8-of-69 for 11.6%. He’s also Arkansas’s second-best free throw shooter (14-of-17 for 82.4%).