LITTLE ROCK — There may be very few comparisons between the 2019-20 Arkansas Razorbacks and the ’93-94 UA luxury edition that proved it was the best team in college basketball that season, but a win Saturday at Western Kentucky would thrust both Hoop Hog teams (present and past) into the same conversation: Who are the last two Arkansas squads to begin a season 9-0?
Led by Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson, the ’93-94 Razorbacks won their first 10 games — a stretch that included a win over Missouri (by 52 points in brand-new Bud Walton Arena), road wins over Memphis and Tulsa, and a home win over SEC foe Ole Miss — as the opening salvo to a 31-3 national championship season that ended on April 4, 1994, in Charlotte, N.C., with a 76-72 victory over Duke in the NCAA Division 1 title game.
Since that season, no Arkansas team has won its first nine games. These Razorbacks (8-0) can accomplish that if they can avenge last season’s last-second, 78-77 home loss against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-3), who this year will play host to Arkansas in Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday in a 6:30 p.m. game that will be nationally televised by CBS Sports Network.
Immediately following his team’s 69-61 home win Tuesday over Austin Peay — which allowed the Razorbacks to match the best start to an Arkansas season since Richardson’s ’97-98 team won its first eight games — first-year Head Hog Eric Musselman understandably was not ready to talk about the historical parallels that a win over WKU would evoke.
“No, I’m just worried about (Charles) Bassey,” Musselman said of the leading scorer and rebounder for Western Kentucky. “My whole thought, we’ve got the depth chart up for Western Kentucky and it’s not going to be an easy place to play. It’s a weekend game. I’m sure they’ll have a good crowd. They came in here last year and won the game. Our guys know that they beat us here last year and when the schedule came out we knew with the three true road games, meaning the Georgia Tech game, the Western Kentucky game, and the Indiana game — we knew those three games we had to circle. Those were going to be three tough games and we’ve got one coming up on Saturday, one is in the books (a 62-61 overtime win at Georgia Tech on Nov. 25), and one is kind of down the road a little bit (at Indiana on Dec. 29).”
“So we’re happy we’re 8-0, but after Saturday we’ll go right back to training camp. We have three games in three weeks and we’re not going to have soft practices for those three weeks. We’ve got to clean up a ton of stuff and so we’ll get back and grind it for three hard weeks.”
Bassey had 21 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 1 assist in WKU’s one-point win over Arkansas a year ago. His lone assist came with 0:19 left and provided what proved to be the game-winning lay-in for the ‘Toppers, and his final blocked shot was on Hogs’ point guard Jalen Harris at 0:02 that effectively sent Arkansas to defeat. Projected in some NBA mock drafts as a first-round pick had he come out of school after last season, Bassey leads WKU with 15.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. The 6-11 sophomore is shooting 52.5% from the field and 77.8% from the free throw line.
Guards Taveion Hollingsworth (12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists) and Jared Savage (9.7 points, 4.9 rebounds,1.1 blocks) combined for 37 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in the win over Arkansas. Veteran transfers Camron Justice (he started his career at Vanderbilt) and Carson Williams (Northern Kentucky) are averaging 13.4 points and 11.7 points, respectively, as both are logging around 30 minutes per game.
Like they did a year ago, the Hilltoppers will enter their matchup against the Razorbacks on the heels of an upset road loss. In ’18-19, WKU lost at Missouri State in the game prior to playing Arkansas, and this season the ‘Toppers lost at Wright State, 76-74, on Tuesday. And though WKU is 2-3 in its last 5 games, all were played away from home (four at neutral sites, one on the road). WKU started the season 4-0 — all home games — including a 97-75 win over the same Austin Peay team that Arkansas struggled to finish off Tuesday. The Arkansas matchup will be WKU’s first home game since a 109-66 victory over Campbellsville on Nov. 18. The Hilltoppers are averaging 79.6 points per game on 50.6% field goals and 78.8% free throws.
“Both those guys are great NBA prospects because they have great size and can run the floor, they have good hands,” Musselman said of Bassey and Williams. “It’s easier to evaluate a guy when you’ve seen him live. On film, both players look really good. I can’t really give too much of a projection because I haven’t seen Bassey live, in my opinion he’s a great player. He’s got huge upside, he’s still a young player, he’s going to continue to grow and get better.”
“College level, it’s a big-time challenge. The other guy, Williams, they’ll try to post him up too. Both those guys inside are physical.”
Should the Hogs defeat WKU, they’ll host Tulsa a week later (12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14) with a chance to match the ’93-94 team’s perfect start through 10 games.
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Hogs identity still about the defensive end of the floor: Even after Georgia Tech and Austin Peay each had 30-plus-percent succes on 3-pointers against Arkansas, the Razorbacks’ perimeter defense is still arguably the best in the nation, and by the numbers their 3-point field-goal defense as of Wednesday was tops in NCAA Division 1 basketball at 19.9% opposition conversion rate.
Not far behind its top-rated 3-point D …
— Arkansas ranks No. 5 nationally in scoring defense (52.6 points per game). The Hogs held each of their first three opponents below 50 points — matching defending national champion Virginia for the best scoring-defensive start to a season in the last 70 years of NCAA D1 basketball. The Hogs last two opponents — Georgia Tech and Austin Peay — have each managed to score 61 points against Arkansas after the Hogs held each of their first six opponents to fewer than 50 points.
— Arkansas ranks No. 6 nationally in turnovers forced per game (20.3). For an undersized team on the interior, the Hogs have done a good job defensively at getting deflections, timing their jumps into passing lanes, challenging handlers and shooters to the point of forcing and recovering loose balls, and simply confusing opponents into errant passes.
— Arkansas ranks No. 11 nationally in turnover margin (plus-6.8 per game), No. 16 nationally in overall field-goal defense (36.6%), and No. 16 nationally in total steals (86).
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Individual Razorbacks are national defensive chart-toppers, too: Preseason All SEC pick Isaiah Joe is known best for his perimeter firepower, and though it’s true he leads the Hogs once again in 3-pointers made (25), is the team’s second-leading scorer (15.8 points per game), and the team’s leading assister (2.9 per game), it may come as a surprise that Joe is arguably the top individual defender in the country.
According to advanced stats published by Sports-Reference.com, Joe is No. 1 in NCAA Division 1 basketball with 1.1 “Defensive Win Shares” — a stat that begins with “Defensive Rating”, which is an estimate of the player’s points allowed per 100 defensive possessions, and from there a complicated car-wash formula of math crunches more numbers together to arrive at Defensive Win Shares.
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., comes in at No. 4 nationally in Defensive Win Shares with 1.0.
Senior forward Adrio Bailey leads the nation in Defensive Box Plus/Minus at 12.3, which is another defensive advanced stat calculated by Sports-Reference.com.
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Update on Hoop Hogs’ position in various national analytics rankings: As of Thursday, Arkansas was No. 23 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 29 in KenPom ratings, No. 40 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, No. 20 in RealTimeRPI, and No. 20 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).
Arkansas received 17 votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday, which equates to a national No. 35 ranking.
In his most-recent projected NCAA tournament field that was updated on Dec. 2, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Hogs slated as an at-large 9-seed.
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Feral Fast Takes: Prior to Thursday’s games, Arkansas was one of only two unbeaten SEC teams (Auburn) among the 16 NCAA Division 1 schools that remain undefeated … Arkansas had been struggling shooting the ball from 3 — just above 25% on the season through 7 games — before a 9-of-23 effort for 39.1% against Austin Peay, which was the most 3-pointers made by the Razorbacks since their season-opening 10-of-25 performance (40.0%) against Rice … Arkansas quietly has the 13th-best free throw shooting team in the nation at 78.9%, which is tops in the SEC … sophomore Desi Sills doubled his 3-point output on the season by making 2-of-5 from distance as both of his makes came in a 34-second span in the final 2 minutes of the Austin Peay game (Sills is now 4-of-35 on the season) … speaking of 3-point shooting, junior guard Jalen Harris was 2-of-4 from 3 against Peay, raising his season numbers to 6-of-17 (35.3%) which is a monumental improvement over his 3-point shooting from a season ago when he shot 8-of-69 (11.6%) … senior-graduate transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., has led Arkansas in scoring in 3 of the Hogs’ last 4 games, including two career-high-tying 24-point outings … perhaps the biggest surprise against Austin Peay was the Hogs’ best frontline production that came from sophomore forward Ethan Henderson, who contributed 2 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 7 first-half minutes off the bench to spark Arkansas at both ends of the court … prior to Tuesday, Henderson had played in only two games and had not seen the floor since Nov. 19 when Arkansas defeated Texas Southern.