LITTLE ROCK — Only one opponent has been on the losing end against Arkansas basketball more than Rice, and the Razorbacks would like to push the Owls down another rung on that ladder tonight as both teams match up in what will be first-year head coach Eric Musselman’s official debut in Fayetteville.
Tip off is set for 7 p.m. CT on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena, and the game can be viewed via live stream on SEC Network Plus.
Going back to their old Southwest Conference days that pre-date the 1991-92 season, Arkansas is 102-41 all-time against Rice. But that’s ancient history, and with the 2019-20 college basketball season opening Tuesday all around the country the Owls have a chance to come into BWA and play spoiler.
Just don’t expect the Hogs to be looking past Rice or any opponent on their schedule as Musselman has stressed the one-game-at-a-time mantra for a team picked preseason by the media to finish 11th in the 14-team SEC.
“I think just to worry about, like I said, the next game on our schedule,” Musselman said during his Thursday press conference. “I think that’s who we are. I think we’re going to have different gameplans different nights based on our personnel and being a little bit smaller maybe than certain teams. Hopefully our style of play kind of continues to evolve. As far as expectations, I don’t want to put any expectations on our guys other than (the current game). Every team right now, I would assume, has the same goal. They want to play beyond the last game on their schedule.
“We’ve read everything. I continue to read. Now a lot of the beat writers around the league are doing their things and, I mean, not much respect, so we just have to go earn it. We understand. At media day the SEC had wherever we were and if you start reading some of the stuff from people that cover the league the last few years, it’s even lower with some people. You just get ready to play, you use it as motivation internally and we’ll see where it ends up at the end of the year.”
Musselman was 3-1 in season-openers at Nevada where he was head coach covering the past four seasons. The lone loss was against St. Mary’s, ranked No. 17 in the country to start the ’16-17 season.
Musselman said he’ll be “excited” to begin the season while playfully downplaying the hype around his first official game coaching at Arkansas.
“Doesn’t really matter how I feel,” Musselman said with a laugh. “It’s how the guys in uniform (feel) … Just like every opener I’ll be excited. Obviously when you’re coaching in front of our fans it will be a new experience for me. I’ve coached enough games where you walk in and you’ve got to just focus on what happens between the lines really.”
Arkansas returns two of its three double-figure scorers from a year ago in 6-5 guards Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones — both averaged more than 13 points per game.
Joe finished the ’18-19 regular season as the SEC’s leader in 3-pointers (made and percentage), he’s already Arkansas’s all-time single-season leader in made-3s (113), and an All SEC Freshman Team pick a year ago the Fort Smith native enters his sophomore season as a preseason All SEC 2nd Team selection (by both media and league coaches) as well a Jerry West Award watch-list prospect. Joe had a game-high 25 points (on 8-of-17 shooting from 3) in the Hogs’ first exhibiton game win over Little Rock on Oct. 20, but five days later he went scoreless (on 0-of-5 shooting) in an exhibition win over Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Jones was not only a top scorer for Arkansas last season, he was the team’s second-leading rebounder and assister. Like Joe, he was hot and cold in the two exhibition games, scoring only 4 points against Little Rock followed by his best week of practice that led to a game-high 22 points (on 8-of-12 field goal shooting) against Southwestern Oklahoma State.
“He’s had another good week of practice,” Musselman said of Jones. “Much better than the week prior to him not starting in the exhibition game. He’s been very focused and brought the same energy and enthusiasm that he had the prior week.”
Guards Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (6-3 senior) and Desi Sills (6-2 sophomore) had strong preseasons and both stand to play heavy minutes against Rice. For Whitt it’s a homecoming as he returned to Arkansas from SMU for his final season after beginning his career with the Hogs as an incoming freshman in 2015.
“I think mentally everybody’s ready,” Whitt said. “Everybody’s ready to get after another team, where it counts, where everything matters going towards the record and actual season. Mentally we’re ready as a team. Each day you get more and more prepared with scouting things, cleaning up things from the two exhibitions we had. We’re getting to where we need to be for sure.”
Arkansas will look for frontline production by committee — senior forward Adrio Bailey, senior forward Jeantal Cylla, and sophomore Reggie Chaney are the trio expacted to play the majority of the minutes.
“Obviously, in his two preseason games he (Bailey) hasn’t missed a field goal,” Mussleman said of his most cosnsistent forward in the preseason. “One of the areas we talked to him about was taking pride in good shot selection, taking pride in being a guy we could play through at the top of the key. Where he could throw and chase pick and rolls. Where he could be involved in dribble-handoff situations. I thought he had some great moments last year, and then I thought he had some moments with inconsistency as well.”
Although Arkansas defeated Little Rock by 15 points and Southwestern Oklahoma State by 27 points in the exhibition portion of the season, the Hogs struggled on the glass (against the Trojans), with turnovers (18 in each game), and fouling that led to a large volume of free throw attempts for both opponents. Subsequently, Musselman had his team going through some unique drills over the past 11 days — players wearing weight vests and gloves, having players raising towels and connected to each other with strings, putting a bubble over the rim — in an attempt to stress a sense of urgency in cleaning up the problem-areas in time for the start of the season.
“We did them at Nevada,” Musselman said of the quirky practice drills. “Earl Boykins will probably tell you we did some of it at Golden State. We’re not going to play defense with a towel for an hour. But hopefully if you do it for a couple minutes, it just kind of illustrates in their head the importance of it instead of just talking about it or blowing a whistle and saying, ‘Hey, you fouled a guy.’”
Rice was 13-19 last season and finished 8-10 in Conference-USA for 9th-place in the league. The Owls lost to NCAA Division II St. Edwards on Thursday in their final exhibition game.
Rice returns it’s top three scorers — 6-6 senior forward Robert Martin (12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in ’18-19), 6-3 sophomore guard Chris Mullins (12.0 points in ’18-19), 6-3 and senior guard Ako Adams (11.2 points in ’18-19). The Owls also have 6-8 sophomore combo guard Trey Murphy III (8.4 points in ’18-19).
That quartet collectively shot 214-of-553 from 3 for 38.7% last season.
“Adams is really good at the point guard position,” Musselman said. “He’s a lefty, crafty, can make a 3-ball. Martin who could play the 4 or 3 … if they wanted to play really small he could probably play the 5. He’s No. 10 and they run some isolation stuff for him and they play a little bit in transition. They are really well coached. Scott Pera is a really good coach. They run a lot of screen, re-screen action so we’re going to have to defend pick and rolls really well. Chris Mullins at the off guard spot, another good player. The nucleus of their team is all returning. They are a scary team because of experience. They have a lot of guys returning off of last year’s team.”
Arkansas’s 102 wins against Rice is tied for second-most in school history with Texas A&M, while the Hogs’ 104 all-time wins against TCU represents the most against a single opponent.
Following the season-opener against Rice, the Hogs will have a week to prepare for a home game against North Texas that is set to tip at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Nov. 12.