LITTLE ROCK — Sure it was a painful blowout loss and the only convincing beatdown of the season, but don’t expect Arkansas’s 82-61 road dismantling at the hands of Tennessee two weeks ago to fuel a revenge mindset when the two teams meet up again for a mid-week SEC tilt in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks (17-10, 5-9 SEC, NCAA NET No. 45) host the Vols (15-12, 7-7 SEC, NCAA NET No. 64) at 7:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena in a game that will be televised by SEC Network.
“We’ve just kind of talked over and over that every game takes on a new theme, a new identity,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his press conference on Monday. “There’s adjustments. It’s like a playoff. I said it a couple of weeks ago when we were playing our first opponent, I think it was Mississippi State, for a second time. You hope to be able to watch the film and make adjustments and hope to watch their last few games and see how teams are playing people.
“But their point guard (freshman Santiage Vescovi of Uruguay) really hurt us bad. He did whatever he wanted. He shot 3’s, he assisted the ball, he got his teammates great looks. We had no answer whatsoever for Vescovi. Somehow we’ve got to be able to find an answer to try to beat them.”
Forget revenge, Arkansas is now in must-win mode regardless of the opponent if the Hogs are to play themselves into serious NCAA tournament at-large consideration in just a few weeks as SEC regular-season play is winding down to the final four games before the SEC tournament determines a single NCAAT automatic qualifier.
The Razorbacks found themselves in dire straights after a 5-game losing streak, but the return of star sophomore guard Isaiah Joe from a knee injury for the Missouri game — a 78-68 Hogs victory at BWA on a Saturday — put Arkansas back on the winning side of the scoreboard as Joe went of for 21 points (including 5-10 from 3), 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in 38 minutes. Equally important was Joe’s presence at both ends of the floor, where his defense stood out as well as his impact on the floor spacing on the offensive end that benefitted the likes of Jimmy Whitt, Jr., Desi Sills, and Adrio Bailey.
“I think it makes a huge difference for us from a rotation standpoint,” Musselman said of Joe’s return impacting the team. “Quite frankly, when Isaiah wasn’t in uniform, they kind of self-subbed. Now we can kind of sub based on performances. Before if a guy wasn’t playing well, he still got minutes because we had nowhere else to turn. So by getting Isaiah back and a player that you know is going to play 30 to 38 minutes or whatever, it certainly allows us to substitute based on productivity on that given night.
“So I think it changes things dramatically for us and then you add in the fact he’s a really good player, too. I mean even this next game, we’ll probably still be talking about who to start all the way up until shoot-around. Because we don’t have a set starting lineup right now. We’re still trying to figure out who is that fifth starter for us.
I think everybody knows who our four starters are, and then we’re trying to figure out who that fifth guy is.”
Sophomore Desi Sills has been a regular in the starting lineup for most of the season, but he played off the bench against Mizzou on Saturday and responded with 17 points — including 14 in the final 12:59 of the game — on 6-of-8 field goals, including 4-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throws in 32 minutes.
Three times in the late stretch of the game when the Tigers whittled their deficit down to a one-possession margin, Sills came back each time with three points (one old-fashioned three-point play and two three-point baskets) to extend the Hogs back out to two-possession leads. With the Hogs up only 71-68 in the final 77 seconds, Sills broke Mizzou’s full-court press, penetrated the the top of the key, then dished back out to Isaiah Joe for a three-point basket at 1:10 that doubled the lead to 74-68 and effectively put the game away.
“It’s something we’re talking about, we even talked about it before this press conference, because he came off and gave us a great scoring punch,” Musselman said when asked if Sills would re-join the starting lineup. “He’s usually in there in crunch time. That’s why I said we’re probably going to change our starting lineup, I don’t know who that fifth guy is. We’ve tried a bunch of different guys, we’ve just got to keep tinkering and see what sticks.”
Whitt had 14 points on 6-of-12 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws against Mizzou after struggling to make shots in the 5-game stretch with Joe out of the lineup. He also had 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 39 minutes.
Bailey finished with 11 points (4-of-8, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in 31 minutes.
“When you add another perimeter threat it just opens up things for everybody on the team,” Musselman said. “Certainly if you’re an interior player when you have two 3-point threats, like those guys are, and then Desi has been shooting the ball really well like the last 10 games or whatever it’s been as far you look at his body of work, it opens up for Jimmy and Adrio inside, or whoever we have inside.”
The SEC’s second-leading scorer Mason Jones (20.5 points per game) did not have a big game offensvie game against Mizzou — 12 points including only 2-of-9 field goal shooting — but he did lead the team in rebounds with 8 and assists with 4, and he made 7-of-8 free throws, including 4-of-4 in the final 47 seconds to ice the win.
Jones is 5 points shy of reaching 1,000 points in his Arkansas career, and when he reached that milestone he’ll become the 44th Razorback to do so. In the only game he did not start this season, Jones played off the bench and finished with only 9 points (on 1-of-10 field goal shooting) in 24 minutes at Knoxville when Tennessee hammered the Hogs by 21 points on Feb. 11.
As a team, Arkansas has been good for the most part in turnover margin (No. 9 in the nation at plus-4.7 per game) but struggled with inconsistency in that department during the 5-game losing streak. Against Missouri, the Hogs were plus-5 (13-8) which fed a plus-12 margin in points-off-turnovers (19-7). As the worst rebounding team in the SEC, it was no shock that Arkansas was minus-13 on the glass (36-23, including a 10-2 disadvantage in offensive rebounds), but the Hogs were only minus-3 in second-chance-points (5-2).
The return of Joe and his hot shooting combined with Sills’ effectiveness from distance was the catalyst for a 12-of-25 team effort behind the arc (48.0%). Arkansas held Mizzou to 4-of-21 shooting from 3 (19%) as the Hogs remain the nation’s best three-point field goal defense (25.5%).
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Scouting Tennessee: The Vols are 1-2 since drubbing the Hogs, but Musselman was focused on talking about that first meeting. He not only talked about the damage that the lefty Vescovi did to his Hogs in the first meeting — career highs in scoring (20 points on 6-of-10 field goals, including 3-of-4 from 3, and 3-of-4 free throws) and assists (8 dimes) in 31 minutes — but he also acknowledged the impact of senior guard Jordan Bowden.
“He annihilated us, too,” Musselman said of Bowden, who had 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in 38 minutes. “I mean, we had no one to guard him either. Bowden, obviously, he’s a high-volume 3-point shooter and he’s really good in transition. He’s really good in mid-range. He did a good job … he had three curl-bends, that I call them, coming off down screens where he caught that thing right in the mid-range. He can make mid-range shots, he can attack the rim because of his length and his physicality for his position. He’s also shot the ball at a higher percentage in year’s past than he even did this year. He takes a fair share of 3s, so that becomes, at least the threat of taking them, is a concern as well.”
Not only did Arkansas’s Isaiah Joe not play in the previous matchup between the Hogs and Vols, but neither did Tennessee’s 6-6 freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James, who’s averaging 7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists and rejoined the Vols’ lineup for their last three SEC games after missing the first half of February with a hip injury.
“He’s (James) a great player, but I’m still going back and watching the film of whoever was on the floor of their five guys that had their way,” Musselman said. “He’s a really good player, but I can’t even be concerned with him right now, because we’ve got to figure out how to stop the guys that were actually in uniform for them last time. But he’s a good defender and lengthy and how are we going to stop (big man John) Fulkerson? And what are we going to do with (6-6 junior Yves) Pons on the offensive glass? Are we going to be able to keep the point guard (Vescovi) front of us?
“All those things are a concern because the score would indicate that they caused us a lot of problems.”
Fulkerson had had 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 block in 28 minutes in the first matchup. Pons finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 block in 31 minutes. Freshman 6-8 forward Olivier Nkamhoua chipped in 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block in 19 minutes.
Aside from the individual production, the overall peronnel matchups — size, length, athleticism, and skill — favored the Vols and overwhelmed Arkansas from the beginning as Tennessee enjoyed runs of 7-0, 20-7, and 7-0 while racing out to a commanding 40-23 halftime lead. The Vols put to bed any notion that the Hogs might claw their way back in with a 17-5 surge that was good for a 65-38 lead at the midway point of the second half.
The Razorbacks were horrendous from the outset in most aspects of that game …
* Arkansas went 7:44 in the first half without a field goal, but managed to top that with an 8:40 stretch in the second half without a bucket. For the game, the Razorbacks were 15-of-49 shooting for 30.6% (including 5-of-16 from 3 for 31.3%).
* Arkansas was outrebounded 40-29 and finished minus-24 in points-in-the-paint (40-16) and minus-5 in second-chance-points (13-8).
* One of the top team’s in the nation in turnover margin coming in, Arkansas lost the turnover battle (14-11).
* Arkansas shot six more free throws than Tennessee but made only two more (26-of-36 for 72.2% for the Hogs compared to 24-of-30 for 80% for the Vols).
* Arkansas’s defense yielded 26-of-53 field goal shooting (49.1%), including 6-of-16 from 3 (37.5%), both numbers significantly higher than the Hogs’ defensive field goal efficency on the season.
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Up next for Arkansas: After Tennessee, the Razorbacks go back on the road to face Georgia on Saturday.