Game preview: Arkansas (15-4, 3-3 SEC) hosts South Carolina (11-8, 3-3 SEC) at Bud Walton Arena

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — There’s currently a 4-team log-jam for fifth place in the SEC, and the winner between the Arkansas Razorbacks and South Carolina Gamecocks in their Wednesday tilt at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville will emerge as at least the fifth team (and possibly the sixth) to share in an identical 4-3 league record.

Arkansas (15-4, 3-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 28) and South Carolina (11-8, 3-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 89) are set to tip at 7:30 p.m. CT in a game that will be televised by SEC Network.

Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Florida, and Tennessee are currently tied for fifth place in the league, each at 4-3, with either the Hogs or Gamecocks set to join them. Alabama (4-2 in the SEC) plays at LSU in a game that tips at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday, and if the Tide lose they’ll join the 4-3 party giving the league six teams that would then be locked in a tie for fourth place heading into weekend games.

If that seems a bit complex, a way to simplify it would be to say that LSU (6-0 SEC), Kentucky (5-1 SEC), and Auburn (5-2 SEC) are ahead of a six-team middle-of-the-pack herd vying to stay relevant and within striking distance of the leaders.

Arkansas is looking to end its two-game SEC losing streak (both 7-point losses against Kentucky and Mississippi) against South Carolina, which overcame a 13-point second-half deficit last season to beat the Hogs 77-65 in Columbia, S.C. Piror to that, Arkansas had won the previous three meetings in the series. A win on Wednesday would get the Hogs off to their best start through the first 20 games of a season since the 2014-15 squad began 16-4 en route to winning 27 games and finishing second in the SEC at 13-5.

The Razorbacks are coming off a splendid, on-point 78-67 win over visiting TCU in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge at BWA on Saturday that halted a two-game losing streak while sewing up an impressive 12-1 final record against non-conference opponents, matching the best non-SEC portion of the regular-season slate since the 2008-09. 

Even more impressive is that the Razorbacks excelled at both ends of the court despite the absence of sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, who had started all 52 games in his Arkansas career before sitting out the TCU contest with a right knee injury. It remains to be seen if the 6-5 Fort Smith native is ready to rejoin the team in its return to SEC play.

“I don’t know,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his Monday press conference when asked about Joe’s playing availability. “We played Saturday, we were off Sunday. Guys are just trickling in now from class. So that’s three days of, you know, (Joe) spending time with Mark O’Neill, our trainer. I think anytime you do anything, if you get shots up and stuff … does it swell?  I have no idea. If he does limited stuff today is there swelling tomorrow? Only time will tell. I don’t know, I’m not a medical (professional).”

The Razorbacks’ trio of guards — Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (20 points), Desi Sills (18 points in his first game of the season playing off the bench), and Jalen Harris (7 points and a game-high 6 assists in his first start of the season) — picked up the offensive slack with the SEC’s fifth-leading scorer being out in Joe (16.8 points per game), and they did it efficiently combinining for 17-of-27 field goal shooting (63.0%), including 4-of-5 from 3 (80.0%). 

It was the second time this season both Whitt and Sills had significant point production with one of the Hogs’ two leading scorers missing in action. Against Northern Kentucky in November, it was Jones who sat out (shoulder injury) when Whitt and Sills combined to score 41 points in a 66-60 Arkansas victory.

Defensively against TCU, Whitt basically shut down the Horned Frogs’ leading scorer, Desmond Bane (17.2 points per game coming in), holding him to 8 points on 6 field goal attempts.

“I think Jimmy, and I said it after the game, is one of the best defenders in all of college basketball,” Musselman said. “I think he is an NBA-type defender … Seven-foot wingspan, studies the scouting report, asks questions, understands defensive angles, doesn’t crowd guys that are great dribble-drive guys. He gives them an arm’s length. But yet because of his great wingspan can contest 3-balls. 

“I think most importantly, he wants to guard the opposing team’s best player 1-4. And he takes that as a challenge. Some guys hide from it. When you bring your team together and you say, ‘Hey, who wants to guard Bane?’ His is the first hand up. Or you’re getting ready to play Indiana on the road, and who is going to guard Jackson-Davis? He puts his hand up right away. You’re like, ‘Come on, man, you’re our point guard. You sure you want to guard their 4-5 man?’ ‘Yep. Let me take him.’ I’ve been around not many guys that want to every night do that.”

Junior guard Mason Jones, the Hogs’ leading scorer and third in the SEC at 18.4 points per game, scored 19 of his 20 points in the second half against TCU, and though he did not shoot well (4-of-11 field goals) he was aggressive attacking the basket which resulted in 15 free throws attempts (he made 10). He also had 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and only 2 turnovers in 30 minutes.

Arkansas got frontline-by-committee contributions from all four available scholarship forwards as Adrio Bailey, Reggie Chaney, Jeantal Cylla, and Ethan Henderson combined for 13 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist, and 1 steal. 

As a team, Arkansas has been reliant on volume 3-point shooting to open up other aspects of its offense, but against TCU the Razorbacks placed a premium on attacking the basket resulting in a 27-of-50 overall field goal shooting performance (54.0%), and the economized focus on three-point shooting resulted in a 6-of-9 effort from distance (66.7%).

“I said it after the TCU game that it was by far, by far our best shot selection of the year,” Musselman said. “We didn’t settle for threes. We only took nine threes and we made six.  Just really good shot selection and we’ve done a really great job of not only getting to the rim lately but of finishing. I think Coach (Clay) Moser did a little study the other day and we were like at 91 percent at the rim against TCU. And they have a pretty big guy in there in (6-11 center Kevin) Samuel. So like I said the last two games we haven’t settled and we certainly don’t want to settle on Wednesday either.”

Arkansas once again lost the rebounding battle (34-26), but minimized the damage by finishing only minus-3 in second-chance-points (15-12) while earning a draw in points-scored-in-the-paint (34-all). Conversely, Arkansas won turnovers (19-12), points-off-turnovers (15-11), and fast-break-points (18-6). 

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Scouting South Carolina: Frank Martin’s squad has been an enigma, losing to the likes of Boston University and Stetson sprinkled in with wins over then-No. 9 and defending national champion Virginia (70-59 on the road in late December) and against then-No. 10 Kentucky (a come-from-behind 81-78 win on a buzzer-beating three-pointer just two weeks ago).

Beginning with the win over the ‘Cats (which stands as UK’s only loss in six league matchups), South Carolina has won 3 of its last 4 games including a road win against Texas A&M.

The Gamecocks are led by 6-6 sophomore guard AJ Lawson, who is averaging 13.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.1 steals in 27.7 minutes while shooting 48.7% from the field, including 40.6% from 3, and 76.0% free throws. Freshman 6-4 guard Jermaine Couisnard is averaging 10.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 23.5 minutes per game while shooting 40.6% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 60.4% free throws. 

Junior 6-3 guard Jair Bolden is averaging 9.9 points in 23.4 minutes while shooting 42.6% from 3, and senior 6-11 forward/center Malik Kotsar is averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 29.2 minutes while shooting 49.4% field goals and 57.5% free throws. Sophomore 6-5 forward Keyshawn Bryant has only played in the last 10 games, but he’s averaging 20.5 minutes and 8.2 points. Justin Minaya, a 6-6 foward, is averaging 30.6 minutes, 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists.

Aside from those six players, Carolina has another four averaging between 10 and 14 minutes per game.

As a team, the Gamecocks are averaging 70.8 points (10th in the SEC) while shooting 43.6% field goals (9th SEC), including 31.4% from 3 (10th SEC), plus 61.2% free throws (14th SEC). Carolina is a good rebounding team (37.6 boards per game) to go with 14.2 assists, 7.7 steals, 4.2 blockss, and 13.5 turnovers per game.

“We’ve got to expect to get South Carolina’s best game,” Musselman said. “Obviously, their non-conference schedule is what it is but like last year in conference play, they’re playing really well. We expect to see a really good team. They’ve gotten themselves really ready to play against the Virginias and Kentuckys. The Kentucky game was back-and-forth, they got stops when they needed and they scored when they needed. Any time you play a program that has beaten Kentucky or Virginia you better bring your A-game, or else. So, that’s how we approach South Carolina. I think they’re a really good team.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After South Carolina, Arkansas goes on the road for a Saturday, Feb. 1, matchup with Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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