Hog Food for Thought: Arkansas and Ole Miss

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LITTLE ROCK — After both suffered mid-week league losses, Arkansas and Ole Miss look to get well when the teams meet this weekend in an SEC matchup in Oxford, Miss. 

The Razorbacks (12-2, 1-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 31) and Rebels (9-5, 0-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 89) are set for a 5 p.m. CT tip off Saturday in a game that will be televised by SEC Network. 

The Hogs will play their second-consecutive road game following Wednesday’s 79-77 loss at LSU in a contest that saw eight lead changes in the last 5:27 of the game, while the Rebels have lost two in a row — both on the road by a combined 30 points — against Wichita State and Texas A&M. Arkansas is 2-2 in true road games and 3-2 in all games played outside of Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, while Ole Miss is 7-1 at home with its only loss coming against Butler, currently ranked 6th nationally. The Hogs and Rebs met twice last season, each winning on their homecourt.

Overwhelmed and decimated on the glass against LSU — minus-29 in overall rebounding (53-24), including minus-20 on the offensive boards (23-3) for an avalanche of minus-26 in second-chance-points (26-0) — Arkansas still had its chances to steal a win on the road against the defending SEC champions that came in having won 17 of their last 19 league games.

Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (a 15-footer with 38 seconds remaining) and sophomore guard Isaiah Joe (a driving lay-up plus a free throw with 21 seconds left) each gave Arkansas a one-point lead in the final minute of the game, but the Hogs could not stop Tigers’ freshman forward Trendon Watford from driving in for his own three-point play with 8.4 seconds remaining, which turned out to be the game-winner as Arkansas had two 3-point shot attempts blocked in the final three seconds of the game.

“Obviously we got annihilated, destroyed, whatever word you want to use on the glass,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his Thursday press conference. “I don’t know if there’s many teams in the country that could guard the way that we guarded up until the rebound. Again that’s, unfortunately, you can’t freeze frame and stop and say ‘you took a shot, now we get to take the ball and go the other way.’ There’s a rebound that’s a part of the game of basketball. Halfcourt defense was awesome.

“Anybody that watches us play talks about how hard we play. We just didn’t rebound the ball at all, and when I mean at all, I mean I could take five of us in the media right now and we could have defensive-rebound just as good as what our team did last night.”

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Scouting Ole Miss: Second-year head coach Kermit Davis led the Rebs to the NCAA tournament a season ago in his first campaign in Oxford after Ole Miss was picked preseason to finish dead-last in the SEC, but now his team is looking to end a two-game losing streak as it returns home from a two-game road stretch.

It’s a veteran Ole Miss lineup led by 6-2 guards Breein Tyree and Davontae Shuler. Tyree is a senior and returning All SEC performer who is averaging 17.1 points per game (tied for fifth-best in the SEC), 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals in 32.1 minutes per game while shooting 40.7% from the field, including 34.1% from 3, and 74.6% from the free throw line. Shuler is a junior who is averaging 10.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, a team-best 4.3 assists, and 1.6 steals in 32.4 minutes per game while shooting 40.3% from the field, including 35.7% from 3, and 60.0% from the free throw line.

“He can score, he can dribble, he can pass, he’s a great player, they have a great coach who puts him in spots to score the ball,” Musselman said of Tyree. “Their team understands that he’s the man. Both guards (Tyree and Shuler), it’s as good a backcourt as there is in the conference for sure. They’re both really confident and they’re experienced.”

Sophomore 6-7 wing Blake Hinson stuggled offensively during the Rebels’ current two-game losing streak, but he’s third on the team with 10.8 points to go with 4.6 rebounds while shooting 47.4% field goals, including 37.5% from 3, and 69.2% free throws. Forwards KJ Buffen (6-7 sophomore) and Khadim Sy (6-10 junior) combine to average 18.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game as both shoot better than 50% from the field.

The Rebs’ five top producers average between 22 and 32 minutes per game, and three more reserves are averaging between 11 and 17 minutes.  

As a team, Ole Miss is averaging 69.5 points, 34.9 rebounds, 15.6 assists, 7.4 steals, 2.7 blocks, and 13.5 turnovers while shooting 43.7% from the field, including 32.8% from 3, and 69.5% from the foul line. The Rebels 

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Musselman considering all options to spell senior forward Adrio Bailey: The Head Hog has not been pleased recently with the frontcourt options behind Bailey, and some frustration was obvious when Musselman was asked about it during his press conference on Thursday.

“You know, Reggie (Chaney) had four fouls in five (first-half) minutes (against LSU), and you know he got an opportunity to play in the game before that, and there’s no question that I’m searching as a coach to try to find somebody that can spell Adrio some minutes at the 5,” Musselman said. “Who that player is I can’t tell you right now, because I don’t know. We’ll just keep searching.”

On one play late in the first half against LSU, Chaney picked up a common foul followed by a technical foul for punching the basketball out of bounds in frustration after the whistle, resulting in a 3-of-4 free-throw possession for LSU as part of a 13-5 run that pulled the Tigers within three points, 40-37, at halftime. Chaney did not play in the second half.

“Certainly in a two-point game you do not want a technical foul, especially if you’re only playing a limited amount of minutes,” Musselman said. “I think if Mason or Isaiah — sombodey who’s out there for a large portion of minutes — sometimes those things happen. I’m not happy about it, I can tell you that.

“You just can’t punch a basketball. You can’t do it … A player punched a basketball, and he had four fouls in five minutes … I’m not really worried about one player. I’m trying to figure out who’s going to play behind Adrio … and who’s going to produce and provide us something.”

Musselman’s frontcourt options are somewhat limited beyond Bailey — Chaney (who’s been in Arkansas’s top 7 rotation most of the season), little-used forwards Jeantal Cylla and Ethan Henderson, and walk-on forwards Emeka Obukwelu and Jamario Bell. Another option is to continue to play a 5-guard lineup, something the Hogs have done more of in their two league games.

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Up next for Arkansas: Following their second straight road game against Ole Miss, the Razorbacks return home for games against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and 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. 31 in the latest NCAA NET rankings, which is fourth-best among SEC teams as unbeaten Auburn sits at No. 6, LSU at No. 25, and Kentucky at No. 26. 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. 30 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 33 in KenPom ratings, No. 36 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and No. 22 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).

Arkansas received 38 voting “points” in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday, which was the 28th 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 6-seed if the season ended today, marking Arkansas’s best seeding projection from Lunardi so far this season. A couple of interesting tidbits regarding the projection: Lunardi’s model had Arkansas facing No. 11-seed Indiana in the first round of the South Regional, which would be the fourth time the two teams have met in the last two years. In the second round, the winner of that game would face the first-round winner of No. 3-seed Florida State vs. No. 14-seed Little Rock. 

The Hogs defeated the in-state Trojans by 15 points in an exhibition game in October, and they defeated the Hoosiers, 71-64, on Dec. 29 in Bloomington, Ind.

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Feral Fast Takes: Junior guard Mason Jones leads Arkansas in scoring at 19.8 points, rebounding at 6.1, assists at 2.8, and steals at 1.9, 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 … sophomore guard Isaiah Joe has scored a total of 75 points in the Hogs’ last four games, of which 60 points were scored in the second half — that’s a 3.8-point first-half scoring average in those games, and a 15.0-point second-half scoring average in those games … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (22.6%); No. 14 in turnover-margin (plus-5.1 per game); No. 16 in steals (9.5 per game); and No. 18 in turnovers forced (17.9 per game) … the Hogs have the 14th-best “adjusted defense” ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced stats … senior forward Adrio Bailey is top 10 nationally in a couple of advanced defensive metrics according to Sports-Reference.com — he’s No. 4 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (9.6), and he’s No. 8 with a Defensive Rating of 79.0.

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