Hog Food for Hog Thought, Big 12/SEC Challenge edition: Arkansas (14-4, 3-3 SEC) vs TCU (13-5, 4-2 Big 12) game preview

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LITTLE ROCK — Their first two-game losing streak of the season that includes their first home loss of the season has the Arkansas Razorbacks in unchartered waters as a team looking to avoid a significant skid as the final third of the season is fast-approaching.

Maybe a departure from SEC play to take on an old Southwest Conference foe — Texas Christian University, a team that has produced more Hog wins than any other single opponent in school history — will do the trick as the Hogs (14-4, 3-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 33) will host the Horned Frogs (13-5, 4-2 Big 12, NCAA NET No. 58) at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville as part of the annual Big 12 / SEC Challenge. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN2.

Arkansas (currently 11-1 in non-conference games) will wrap up the non-SEC portion of its schedule against TCU, and a win would give the Razorbacks their best record in regular-season non-conference games in 11 years as the ’08-09 Hogs went 12-1 in non-confenerence play before going 2-14 in the SEC. Dating back to their annual battles in the defunct SWC, Arkansas leads the all-time series against TCU, 104-38, which again represents the most wins against a single program in school history.

Arkansas is 2-3 all-time in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge, including 2-0 in games played at BWA. Arkansas comes in with back-to-back 7-point league losses — 73-66 at home against then-No. 10 Kentucky last Saturday and 77-70 on the road gainst Mississippi State on Wednesday — while TCU is fresh off a 65-54 home win over No. 18 Texas Tech on Wednesday.

“I think the mindset is this gives us the opportunity to show who we are,” senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., said during a Friday press conference. “As individuals, as men, and as a team. When you drop two in a row, two tough ones, both where you have a chance, you end up on that fence where it can go either way for you. You can show who you are and fight through adversity. You can bring it back around and get back on the winning side of things. Or some teams start to come apart. I don’t think that’s who we are. I think we’re going to come out tomorrow and show the character and show what we’re really like.”

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Scouting TCU: The Horned Frogs’ home win over the Red Raiders earlier in the week is a no-doubt postseason resume-builder, but TCU is only 1-2 in true road games with a 20-point loss at Oklahoma last Saturday and a 32-point loss at No. 14 West Virginia just 10 days ago.

Senior 6-6 guard Desmond Bane is having an all-league campaign so far for TCU, averaging 17.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.7 steals in 35.2 minutes per game while shooting 47.4% from the field, including 44.1% from 3, and 80.6% free throws. Bane led the way in the win over Tech with 27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.

Sophomore 6-5 guard RJ Nembhard is averaging 12.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.1 steals in 31.9 minutes per game while shooting 36.2% field goals, inlcuding 30.0% from 3, and 75.0% free throws. Sophomore 6-11 center Kevin Samuel will present yet another interior challenge for the undeaized Razorbacks as he is averaging 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks while shooting 65.9% field goals and 31.9% free throws.

TCU has a quartet of guards — Edric Dennis, Jaire Grayer (senior grad-transfer who visited Arkansas in the spring), PJ Fuller, and Francisco Farabello — who average between 17-23 minutes per game while combining to average 22.5 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals per game. The Frogs’ game-to-game rotation typically goes 8-9 players deep.

“A premier scorer in Bane, who’s really hard to guard,” Musselman said about the strengths of TCU’s lineup. “So you’ve got a guard who shoots a high percentage from 3. You have an inside guy in Samuel who can really rebound the ball. You have a really good, athletic small forward (Nembhard). And then you add two grad-transfers in: Grayer, who plays the power-forward spot although he’s really like a 3-2, so kind of like our team where they’re playing Grayer as a perimeter stretch-4 who’s a pretty good rebounder at his position; and then Dennis at the point guard spot is a 5th-year grad-transfer.

“So, two grad-transfers along with Bane whose got an incredible amount of experience. And their well-coached. I mean he does as good a job as anyone in the country coaching, Jamie (Dixon) does.”

As a team, TCU on offense is a good three-point shooting group (35.5% from distance to lead the Big 12) and a good passing team (16.1 assists per game). At the other end of the floor, the Frogs are top 50 in the nation with 8.1 steals per game. The Horned Frogs are also averaging 69.6 points, 36.4 rebounds, 4.7 blocks, and 13.7 turnovers while shooting 43.3% overall field goals and 62.4% free throws.

“They execute really well offensively,” Musselman said when asked about TCU’s three-point shooting prowess matching up with his team’s nationally top-ranked three-point field goal defense (23.9%). “They do a good job of getting their best players the ball and their best player shots. I mean they’re still going to shoot threes, and we have to do as good a job as we can at contesting the three.”

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Arkansas is looking for, and needing, a bounce-back win: Eric Musselman did not have a three-game losing streak in his four seasons as head coach at Nevada, and he’s considering a change to his starting lineup on Saturday as he looks to prevent a three-game skid in his first season as Head Hog (you can read his quote on the matter below in my “Muss on the Mic” segment).

In Wednesday’s loss at MSU, junior guard Mason Jones scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half while senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., matched the team-high with 20 points of his own.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe has struggled offensively since scoring a career-high 34 points in a road win over Ole Miss erlier in the month, but a slight knee injury suffered in that game resulted in him wearing a light knee brace starting with the next game against Vandy, which was the start of a significant three-game dip for Joe in both shooting percentage and scoring average. Against MSU on Wednesday, Joe scored only 5 points (2-of-13 field goals, including 1-of-8 from 3) although he did pull down a team-high-tying 7 rebounds to go with 3 assists and 1 steal in 36 minutes.

“He’s done a good job, too, fighting through fatigue and a little injury, and such,” Musselman said of Joe, who’s averaging a team-high 36.7 minutes per game. “There’s a lot of combination of why players have good games. His teammates are still trying to get him the basketball.”

As for candidates who potentially could break into the starting lineup, the trio of senior forward Jeantal Cylla, junior guard Jalen Harris, and sophomore forward Reggie Chaney seem to offer the most likely options. Assuming that Arkansas’s combined minus-57 in rebounding margin in its three league losses — at LSU, Kentucky, and at Mississippi State — plays a role in if/when a change is made to the starting unit, Musselman might look to insert either Cylla or Chaney.

Cylla had 5 rebounds in 11 minutes off the bench in the win at Ole Miss, then he had 5 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist in 16 minutes at MSU.

Chaney had forgettable back-to-back performances against LSU and Ole Miss, but in the last three games (Vandy, Kentucky, MSU) he averaged 8.7 points (on combined 12-of-13 field goal shooting) and 2.7 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game off the bench. On the season, Chaney is shooting 27-of-34 from the field for 79.4%, and his per-40-minute numers are solid: 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 1.9 blocks.

“When a player goes in and plays well, you hope that he gets more confident,” Musselman said. “I’ve said it before, I think every game takes on its own identity.
Going into the Kentucky game, just because we played well the game before … Like, I don’t think it really matters. Players get hot during the course of a game, matchups are different from game to game. I thought Cylla did a good job of playing within himself. He knew that in order for him to turn one minute into three minutes into six minutes into 10 minutes, was to not turn the basketball over, rebound and defend. And then he made a three, because he was open and his feet were set and it was a really good shot, and he did a great job of what we call our weakside pairs action where he set a screen for a shooter and then he slipped for an easy layup. And then he converted the layup.

“Then Reggie’s done a great job in our dunker spot, hanging around the baseline and kind of ghosting himself. Then finding open gaps and catching the ball and finishing in traffic.
SEC length has not bothered Reggie around the rim finishing. So certainly those two guys, we hope that their confidence has grown with recent play.”

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Muss at the Mic: The Head Hog is always thoughtful and expansive when it comes to discussing the many aspects of his Arkansas program, and Friday provided the latest flurry. Here are some samples …

— On shaking up the starting lineup against TCU, Muss said: “I think certainly there’s thought process. Tomorrow, I’ll probably leave to go work out about 7 in the morning, and I always take my dog Swish for the walk. And on that walk tomorrow we’ll probably discuss the starting lineup. I’ll pretty much take his lead for what he says. In all seriousness, yes they might have to do some new graphics for the starting five.”

— On handling the highs and lows of winning and losing, Muss said: “Guys like Jimmy and Adrio that have been through three years of wins and losses, I think stability is always good for those guys that are kind of level. For guys like me that are up and down, like a yo-yo, not so good when you lose. Got a real interesting text this morning from Mason about how I needed to bring energy today. Don’t know if I’ve ever had a player text me as I’m waking up that I need to bring energy, but I’m going to bring energy as soon as we’re done with this (press conference) because Mason Jones told me to … I think I gave him the ‘thumbs up.'””

— On his Nevada team’s 84-80 neutral-site loss against TCU two seasons ago, Muss said with a hearty chuckle given the irony of his current under-sized UA team: “They had more size than we did.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After TCU, Arkansas gets back into SEC play next week with a home game Wednesday against South Carolina before going on the road for a Saturday, Feb. 1, matchup with Alabama in Tuscaloose, Ala.

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Where most of Arkansas’s non-conference opponents stand: The Hoop Hogs are 11-1 in games outside the SEC, and they can move the needle to 12-1 with a home win over TCU on Saturday. Ten of Arkansas’s 13 non-conference foes are ranked in the NCAA NET Top 150 (as of Friday) …

— Indiana (15-4, 5-3 for 3rd-place tie in Big 10, NCAA NET No. 42) … the Hooisers defeated No. 11 Michigan State at home on Thursday, 67-63, marking their third home win over a ranked team this season … Indiana is 12-1 at home in 2019-20 with its lone loss coming at the hands of Arkansas, 71-64, on Dec. 29.

— TCU (13-5, 4-2 for 3rd-place tie in Big 12, NCAA NET No. 58) … the Horned Frogs come into Fayetteville following a 65-54 home win Tuesday over No. 18 Texas Tech.

— Tulsa (13-6, 5-1 for 1st-place tie with No. 25 Houston in American Athletic Conference, NCAA NET No. 64) … the Golden Hurricane blew out No. 20 Memphis, 80-40, on Wednesday … the Hogs defeated Tulsa, 98-79, at BWA in mid-December.

— North Texas (13-8, 7-1 for 1st place in Conference USA, NCAA NET No. 83) … UNT lost at Arkansas, 66-43, in mid-November.

— Georgia Tech (8-11, 3-6 for 11th place in ACC, NCAA NET No. 93) … Arkansas won at Georgia Tech, 62-61, in overtime in late November … the Yellowjackets have league road wins over North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Boston College.

— Western Kentucky (13-6, 6-1 for 2nd place in Conference USA, NCAA NET No. 115) … despite the loss of leading scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker Charles Bassey in their 86-79 overtime win over Arkansas in early December, the Hilltoppers have won 6 of their last 7 games, including four in a row.

— Austin Peay (13-7, 7-0 for 1st-place tie with Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference, NCAA NET No. 131) … the Governors lost, 69-61, at Arkansas in early December.

— Northern Kentucky (14-6, 6-2 for 2nd place in the Horizon League, NCAA NET No. 130) … the Norse lost, 66-60, at Arkansas in late November, and they seek their third consecutive Horizon League regular-season title as well as their third NCAA tournament berth in the last four years.

— Montana (11-8, 7-1 for 1st place in Big Sky, NCAA NET No. 132) … Arkansas defeated Montana, 64-46, in mid-November … the Grizzlies are seeking their third consecutive Big Sky regular-season title as well as their third consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

— Valparaiso (10-10, 3-4 for 7th place in Missouri Valley Conference, NCAA NET No. 148) … Arkansas beat the Crusaders lost, 72-68, in North Little Rock in late December.

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Update on Hoop Hogs’ position in various national analytics rankings: Arkansas is No. 33 in the latest NCAA NET rankings. Last season, NET replaced RPI/SOS as the NCAA tournament selection committee’s chief analytics source for helping determine NCAAT at-large bids and seeding.

As of Friday, Arkansas was No. 35 in KenPom ratings, No. 40 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 36 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and No. 24 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).

Arkansas received 19 voting “points” in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday, which was the 36th most points in the poll.

In his most-recent projected NCAA tournament field that was updated on Friday, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Hogs slated as an NCAA tournament at-large 10-seed if the season ended today.

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Feral Fast Takes: The Chasing Greatness Watch is on through 18 games as junior guard Mason Jones leads Arkansas in scoring at 18.3 points (4th in the SEC), rebounding at 6.2, assists at 3.5, and steals at 1.9 (4th in the SEC), and if he finishes the season leading the team in those four categories he’ll be the first Hog to do so since Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (22.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 steals) accomplished the feat in the 1978-79 Elite Eight season when he was a first-team All American … Arkansas ranks 1st in the SEC with 8.8 steals per game and 5th in the league in free throw shooting percentage at 73.8% … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (23.9%); No. 9 in turnover-margin (plus-5.2 per game); and No. 19 in turnovers forced (17.1 per game) … the Hogs have the 11th-best “adjusted defense” ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced stats … senior forward Adrio Bailey is top 10 nationally in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (No. 6 with a 9.2 score) and he’s 4th in the SEC in blocked shots at 1.8 per game.

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