Hog Food for Hog Thought: UA-Vandy preview, Joe 2nd-half wonder, Muss talk, more

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas and Vanderbilt are teams moving in opposite directions at the mid-way point of the college basketball season, and the two will hook up for a mid-week SEC game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

The Razorbacks (13-2, 2-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 24) and Commodores (8-7, 0-2 SEC, NCAA NET No. 133) are set for a 7:30 p.m. CT tip off Wednesday in a game that will be televised by SEC Network. 

Arkansas has won 5 of its last 6 games, and the Hogs will be looking for their first 3-1 start to league play since the 2014-15 team that eventually won 27 games while finishing second in the SEC. Meanwhile, after starting their season 5-1 the Commodores have lost two players to injury — including the SEC’s leading scorer, Aaron Nesmith — while going 3-6 in their last nine games. 

Arkansas is returning home after a two-game road swing that resulted in a split — a 79-77 loss at LSU followed by a 76-72 win at Ole Miss. Vandy opened up league play last week, losing 83-79 at Auburn before a 69-50 home loss against Texas A&M in its first game playing without Naismith. The ‘Dores have been playing without 6-8 senior forward Clevon Brown, the team’s leading rebounder and leading shot-blocker, since mid-December due to an injury.

“It’s a concern just because it was brought up,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said when asked if he was worried his team might be looking past Vandy and ahead to a weekend home game against No. 10 Kentucky. “I mean we’ve got a thing to worry about and it’s how do we get ready for Wednesday’s game. That’s it. It’s the most important game on our schedule. 

“They played Auburn great the other night on the road.  We have to get ready to figure out how to play Vandy. It’s plain and simple.”

Arkansas swept Vanderbilt a season ago, using a 5-0 run in the final 14 seconds of the game to scratch out a 69-66 home win in early February, and then a month later the Hogs ran wild through the ‘Dores, 84-48, in Nashville, TN. Arkansas has beaten Vandy in 8 of the last 9 meetings between the two programs, including 4 wins in a row.

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Scouting Vanderbilt: With two of his top players out — leading scorer Aaron Nesmith and leading rebounder and leading shot-blocker Clevon Brown — first-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse has turned to 6-2 junior guard Saban Lee to lead his team. Lee is averaging 30.5 minutes, 15.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 51.2% from the field, including 35.2% from 3, plus 74.2% from the free throw line. 

Freshman 6-1 point guard Scotty Pippen, Jr. — yes, he’s the son of Hamburg, Ark., native and Naismith Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen — is averaging 29.1 minutes, 10.7 points, 4.5 assists, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 37.9% field goals, including 34.1% from 3, and 71.6% free throws. Junior 6-2 guard Maxwell Evans is getting 21.5 minutes, 7.4 points, and 3.1 rebounds per game whil shooting 47.6% from the field, including 39.0% from 3, and 65.4% from the free throw line. Freshman 6-9 forward Dylan Disu is averaging 26.1 minutes, 5.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. The ‘Dores have three more players averaging between 12 and 15 minutes per game. 

Vanderbilt comes in with the best 3-point shooting team in the SEC and 28th-best in NCAA Division 1 basketball at 37.5%, but a lot of that was due to Nesmith who made shots from distance at a clip of 52.2% while leading the league in makes (60) and points-per-game (23.0). The ‘Dores are 5th in the SEC in both scoring (77.3 points per game) and overall field-goal percentage (46.1%).

Conversely, Vandy is 11th in the league in free-throw percentage (67.3%) and 13th in rebounding (33.9 per game), the latter of which is only slighly better than the SEC’s worst rebounding team (Arkansas at 33.2 per game).

“The whole identity changes a little bit,” Musselman said of Vandy moving forward without the services of Nesmith. “But having said that, it opens up other opportunities for other people. The night that Mason (Jones) couldn’t play for us, someone else got his shots. Somebody is going to get his shots and some of those shots are going to go in … You’re not going to lose possessions because you don’t have a player out there. You’re still going to have your possessions, you’re going to have your attempts, but obviously he’s a really special player and a really difficult matchup. 

“Having said that, the only thing we’re really concerned with is who we have to play against on Wednesday. They’re a dangerous team. They are. I think every league game is just so hard to win that if you don’t come mentally ready and physically ready you’re not going to win.”

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Musselman tackles a lot of topics during his Monday press conference: The Head Hog is always thoughtful and expansive when it comes to discussing the many aspects of his Arkansas program, and Monday it seemed he went the extra mile for reporters. Here is just a sample …

— On star sophomore guard Isaiah Joe being a second-half scorer most of the season, Muss said: “I think its because he’s such an unselfish player and I think he lets his teammates get involved and I think for the most part we’ve kind of been a second half team as well. From an X and Os standpoint we go to our scorers more in he second half. First half there’s a lot of play calls of stuff that are run where five guys are touching the ball and we have a little bit more movement than the last 10 minutes of the game. We have specific sets with different wrinkles where we’re actually dictating more so to speak who’s taking those shots or who has the ball in their hands to make decisions.”

Joe led Arkansas with a career-high-matching 34 points on Saturday in the 76-72 come-from-behin win at Ole Miss, including 26 points in the final 15 minutes when Arkansas overcame an 11-point deficit. Joe has scored more second-half points than first-half points in 12 of the Hogs’ 15 games this season, but the discrepancy has been demonstrably pronounced in the last five games when Joe totaled 86 of his 109 total points in the final 20 minutes of games. That works out to an average of 4.6 points scored in the first half and 17.2 points scored in the second half. 

Joe is second on the team (and 3rd in the SEC) in scoring at 18.2 points per game to go with 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.7 steals (6th in the SEC). He’s second in the SEC with 59 made three-pointers (just one off the 60 that Nesmith has) while making 35.8% of his attempts from distance. In SEC games (only 3 to this point), Joe leads Arkansas in scoring with 21.3 points per game while shooting 46.7% overall field goals, including 14-of-34 from 3 for 41.2%, and 88.9% free throws.

— On seldom-used senior grad-transfer forward Jeantal Cylla’s contributions off the bench against Ole Miss, Muss said: “I don’t know if we’ll see him more or less or at all or a lot. He rebounded the ball, he had five rebounds in 11 minutes. I think he was one of our leaders and he only played 11 minutes so we loved JC’s activity for sure. Getting loose balls and I think even the game before he played like one minute and got a big offensive rebound, and that’s obviously an area of deficiency for us. Having said that he was 1 for 4 from the foul line. I think that’s a confidence thing and a rust thing. Put that on me because I haven’t played him a lot. But certainly we went to the bench a little bit quicker, a little bit earlier against Ole Miss maybe than some other games. It just kind of depends on the flow of the game and the matchups and who you think the other team is going to bring off the bench on what we do going forward. It’s probably going to be game by game as to who is in foul trouble and who is not in foul trouble. But I was happy with how he rebounded.”

— On his team’s conditioning, personnel, and roster management, Muss said: “When I was an assistant in college at LSU and Arizona State, I felt like we had 13 players that were eligible to play every night and I kept saying to myself, ‘Why?’ Because after every game, even when we won, there’s like four guys unhappy because they weren’t playing. Or their parents were unhappy, or their AAU (coach). So it was great to sit back as an assistant and observe. I’m used to (in the NBA) a 48-minute game, 82 games, travel, getting into the hotel at 2:30 in the morning, waking up, playing a game, playing another game, playing another game, playing four games in six nights. You need depth in the NBA. You play 82 games. In college, you play 30 games. We don’t have any 35-year-old players who have played 12 or 13 years in the NBA that are icing their knees night after night after night. So I thought depth was way overrated in college. And I didn’t like walking into a locker room and having guys not be happy with their minutes, so I came up with the formula: I wanted four guys sitting out or I wanted four scholarships who were guys either redshirting, sitting out due to transfers or open scholarships. That way I felt like you could control your team chemistry in the locker room.

“Then you get to your conditioning standpoint and now you’ve got to get with your staff and say, ‘Hey, we got four dudes sitting out, now we’ve got to be the best-conditioned team.’ I think our limited roster size over the five years that I’ve been in college has worked to our benefit so much. I watch these teams play night after night after night and they play us and they start playing more people. I saw it in non-conference and I’m starting to see it in conference. They start playing more people because they think they’re going to wear us down. You’re not going to wear us down. We’ve worked too hard in the summer and the other thing is, too, our guys can play through mistakes because I’m handcuffed. I don’t have a bunch of guys to throw in the game. So if one of our guys misses a defensive assignment or misses a jump shot, he stays in the game. So you play with a little more mental freedom, I guess.”

— On the dynamics of his team’s first two-game road swing of the season, Muss said: “I think our team and myself, we are still getting to know each other in a lot of different areas, for sure. I think we know each others’ personalities, but when you start talking about a team like how are you going to respond after a loss? Then, you have to do it back-to-back road games and a little bit more travel. Like, I knew how our Nevada teams were going to respond after a loss, you can pretty much go back and look at the scores after we lost a game. Other than how the season ended last year, we had an injury that nobody really knew about, but up until that point, we had always responded really well. Then we get down in the second half, with a lot of teams, if you’re on the road in the second game of a two-game back-to-back road trip, and you’re down eight or your down 11 with seven minutes to go, there’s a lot of teams that I think that it goes up to 17, 18, 19, then you get it back to 12 and the horn goes off and you lose by 12 or 13. 

“This group believes they can win no matter what the score is. Probably the thing that I’m most proud of is, I don’t think they are up there scoreboard-watching, so to speak, and looking at the game score. I think they just play. They play hard and they just keep coming at you. They try to get defensive stops, and when shots don’t fall, we fall behind a little bit, but eventually when shots do fall we are pretty good because of how we defend. So, I was proud.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: Arkansas hosts Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18. The Hogs-vs.-‘Cats tilt will be televised nationally at 3 p.m. CT by ESPN with iconic color analyst Dick Vitale expected to be in Fayetteville as part of the game coverage.

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Update on Hoop Hogs’ position in various national analytics rankings: Arkansas is No. 24 in the latest NCAA NET rankings, which is second-best among SEC teams as unbeaten Auburn sits at No. 6 with Kentucky at No. 26 and LSU at No. 28. 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 Tuesday, Arkansas was No. 27 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 27 in KenPom ratings, No. 33 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and No. 23 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).

Arkansas received 65 voting “points” in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday — the most the Hogs have received all season — but for the second consecutive week that translated to the 28th most points in the poll. 

In his most-recent projected NCAA tournament field that was updated on Monday, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Hogs slated as an NCAA tournament at-large 6-seed if the season ended today, matching Arkansas’s best seeding projection from Lunardi so far this season. 

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Feral Fast Takes: The Chasing Greatness Watch is on midway through the season as junior guard Mason Jones — by the way, he had 9 well-orchestrated assists, his career high, in the win over Ole Miss — leads Arkansas in scoring at 19.4 points (2nd in the SEC), rebounding at 6.1, assists at 3.3, and steals at 2.0 (4th in the SEC), and if he finishes the season leading the team in those four categories he will 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 … at 76.3% on the season, Arkansas ranks second in the SEC in free throw shooting percentage behind Kentucky … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (22.6%); No. 11 in turnover-margin (plus-5.2 per game); No. 16 in turnovers forced (17.9 per game); and No. 19 in steals (9.3 per game) … the Hogs have the 15th-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. 9 with a 9.2 score), and he’s 5th in the SEC in blocks per game (1.9) and 10th in steals (1.5). 

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