Game preview: Arkansas at LSU on Wednesday is a quality-win opportunity for both teams

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LITTLE ROCK — It’s only the second game into SEC play, but the stakes are high for both Arkansas and LSU as they meet in Baton Rouge, La., for a mid-week league matchup.

The Razorbacks (12-1, 1-0 SEC, NCAA NET No. 21) and Tigers (9-4, 1-0 SEC, NCAA NET No. 28) square off Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in game that will be televised by ESPNU.

Both teams won league-openers on Saturday — Arkansas at home over Texas A&M, 69-59, and LSU on the road over Tennessee, 78-64 — and both are in line to add an early “Quad 1” win to their postseason resumes with a win. The two teams split a season ago, each winning on the other team’s homecourt. The Hogs upset then-No. 19 LSU — the eventual SEC champions in ’18-19 — by a score of 90-89 on Feb. 2.

“Obviously, LSU is a really talented team,” said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who served as associate head coach at LSU during the 2014-15 season under former Tigers head coach Johhny Jones. “First league road game (for the Hogs), so we’re looking forward to prep (Tuesday) and prep at shoot-around and then getting ready to go compete. 

“I didn’t know Coach Jones at all. I’d never been to Baton Rouge. … I learned so much there. Johnny recruited at such a high level. … Although I never coached him, to be part of the Ben Simmons recruiting process was really, really important for me to see and learn about in-home visits. And then his assistant coach, David Patrick, who I actually talked to on the way driving in this morning. David’s such a high-level recruiter as well, that nine months at LSU was really important.”

Will Wade is in his third season leading LSU, and he respects the early-season success that Arkansas has enjoyed under Musselman.

“They’re playing as well as anybody in our league when you look at their record and what they’re doing, especially defensively,” Wade said. “It’s going to be important that we value the ball and handle the ball. The last couple games we haven’t turned it over a whole lot. Went on the road (at Tennessee) and only turned it over eight times and you give yourself a good opportunity to win. We didn’t turn it over a whole lot against Liberty either, which was critical. We’re going to have to handle the ball really, really well against Arkansas and not give them a whole bunch of extra possessions. 

“Isaiah Joe is as good as shooter we have in the league. (Jimmy) Whitt is automatic in the mid-range. (Mason) Jones is a tremendous player for them. They have a very, very good collection of guards. They’re the hardest playing team I’ve seen on tape all year. They’re just fearless and they play extremely, extremely hard. That will be a challenge for us as well. It should be a great game Wednesday night and we need to have a couple good days of preparation here.”

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Scouting LSU: The Tigers are an efficient, high-scoring offensive team (80.8 points per game, 49.9% overall field goals) with five players averaging double-figures in scoring. LSU also averages 38.8 rebounds, 12.7 assists, 7.2 steals, 4.7 blocks, and 13.8 turnovers per game while shooting 32.7% from 3 and 75.7% from the free throw line.

The Tigers have a veteran and talented 1-2 backcourt punch in senior 6-4 guard Skylar Mays (team-leader in minutes at 33.5 per game and scoring at 15.9 points to go with 2.9 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting 52.5% field goals, including 40.4% from 3, and 85.7% free throws) and sophomore 6-4 guard Javonte Smart (31.5 minutes, 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, team-leading 5.1 assists, 39.2% field goals, including 30.0% from 3, and 79.3% free throws). 

Forwards Emmitt Williams (6-6 sophomore averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 rebounds), Trendon Watford (6-9 freshman averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds), and Darius Days (6-6 sophomore averaging 12.7 points and 8.0 rebounds) are versatile with the ability to score and rebound at a high level. Charles Manning, Jr. (6-5 junior) is averaging 24.4 minutes minutes, 8.5 points, and 3.2 rebounds.

LSU goes about 7 deep like Arkansas, but the Tigers have more collective firepower, size, and athleticism in their rotation compared to the Hogs. After suffering back-to-back losses in December to East Tennessee State and Southern Cal, LSU has strung together two consecutive impressive wins — 74-57 over a good Liberty squad followed by a 78-64 victory on the road against Tennessee to open up league play.

“I think that they’re really athletic,” Musselman said. “They have an experienced backcourt, obviously with Smart and Mays. That’s where you would start. But they have an incredibly talented freshman that starts out at the small forward. Waterford will end up moving to the 4 spot. He’s a guy that can get a defensive rebound and bring the ball up the floor. He can score it, he can pass it, and he can rebound. They’re a team that’s athletic at the 4 and 5 spot as well. They’re a little bit undersized. 

“Then they’ve got guys coming off the bench that can score the ball as well. They’re maybe a little bit healthier than they have been from earlier in the year. They’re a really good team and we’re playing on the road, which makes it even more challenging.”

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Arkansas is road tested, but…: At LSU on Wednesday, the Razorbacks will be playing their second road game in their last three contests as well as their third game away from Bud Walton Arena in their last four outings.

On the season, Arkansas is 2-1 in true road games and 3-1 in all games played outside of BWA, but the first road game in SEC play against the Tigers offers some unchartered waters on at least a couple of fronts: a) the Hogs effectively had one week between games throughout the month of December, allowing more time for preparation and rest, so how does the shorter turnaround time affect the team on the road if at all? b) again, in terms of collective talent and firepower, the Hogs have yet to face the kind of effective inside-out talent that LSU brings, so how close to perfect does Arkansas have to play to win?

The strength of Arkansas has been its 5-man backcourt rotation and the indentity of the team has been on defense, two aspects that will be seriously tested in Baton Rouge.

It starts with 6-5 guard Mason Jones — twice named SEC Player of the Week — who leads the Hogs in scoring at 19.5 points per game (second in SEC), rebounding at 6.2, assists at 2.8, and steals at 1.9 (fifth in SEC). If Jones finishes the season leading Arkansas in all four categories, it will be the first time that has happened since Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (22.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 steals) achieved it during his first-team All American season of 1978-79. 

“Yeah, we have a unique relationship, for sure, in a great way,” Musselman said when asked about Jones. “I would say that as far as communication-wise, he’s an incredible communicator after games. He wants feedback. He and Jimmy (Whitt, Jr.), those two guys are constantly asking, ‘What do you see? What can I do better? Give me feedback on my game. Give me a grade on how I’m playing.’ It’s cool when you have players who are seeking out feedback, whether it’s positive, whether it’s negative.

“The one thing with Mason is he’s an amazing offensive player. We’re putting him in positions he’s never been in in his life. A lot of these guys are, their roles, like, they might have had that role in high school or they might have had that role in AAU ball. Mason’s playing offensively in a completely different area that he’s ever been in and defensively. We’re asking him to guard 4s and 5s. We’re having him be a point guard on offense or a point forward, whatever you want to call it. He’s creating mismatches for us offensively. As far as the relationship goes, I love him. I love coaching him. No day is ever the same with Mason Jones, I will say that.”

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Injury update: Senior forward Adrio Bailey sustained a slight knee injury in Arkansas’s win Saturday over Texas A&M, but nothing that prevented him from returning to that game or playing in future games. 

“Yeah, I think he’s fine,” Musselman said. “Obviously we’re aware of him banging knees and want him not to take as many (practice) reps. But we feel like he should be ready to go (against LSU on Wednesday).

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Up next for Arkansas: After LSU, the Razorbacks are back on the road for an SEC game at Ole Miss on Saturday, Jan. 11. The Hogs will then return home for games against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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