FAYETTEVILLE — No depth, no problem as the Arkansas Razorbacks pushed all the right buttons on Tuesday in their season-opener against Rice that also doubled as the debut of first-year head coach Eric Musselman.
The pre-game news coming out of Fayetteville may have seemed ominous — that two Hogs had been ruled out as the team would start the season with only eight scholarship players — but star guards Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe combined for 56 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists as Arkansas systematically dismantled the Rice Owls, 91-43, to send Musselman to the winner’s circle on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena.
“I thought the guys did a great job with a limited roster, so to speak,” said Musselman, who improved to 4-1 in season-openers as a college head coach.
“In the last four years I’ve gotten kind of used to a roster that has only seven or eight. It’s kind of what we’ve had for four straight years. I looked up at one point and Isaiah Joe was at the power forward spot and towards the end of the game his last segment he was playing point guard. So he went anywhere from the one to the four.”
“From a versatility standpoint our guys have done a really good job of learning multiple positions. I thought our half-court execution on baseline outside out court sets was really, really good. Because I was worried about being a little bit sloppy and one or two guys being in the right spots offensively. But I thought every guy that checked in the game did a really good job of understanding spacing and our second and third options. It’s easy for a basketball team to understand first option but when the defense takes away option one and two how do you read and react to what the defense is giving you? But I thought our guys did a good job.”
The Hogs (1-0) came in short-handed with Tuesday’s dual announcement that sophomore forward Reggie Chaney would be out serving an indefinite suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules while sophomore-transfer center Connor Vanover’s request for a waiver to gain immediate playing eligibility was denied by the NCAA, meaning he won’t play till next season.
The Hogs never blinked and rolled with five guards and three forwards as their lead swelled to 48 points, 91-43, which was the final score and margin.
Jones finished with a career-high 32 points (12-of-18 field goals, including 4-of-8 from 3, plus 4-of-4 free throws), 7 rebounds, a career-high 5 steals, and 3 assists in 32 minutes.
Joe had 24 points (10-of-18 field goals, including 4-of-10 from 3), a career-high 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in 32 minutes.
The duo came in as Arkansas’s top two returning scorers — each averaged more than 13 points per game a year ago — but they often were not on the same page production-wise in the same game, something that stood out in the preseason.
Musselman acknowledged a sense of relief to see the 6-5 guards both firing on all cylinders in the season-opener.
“I thought that they both did a great job of sharing the basketball,” Musselman said. “Behind closed doors, those guys have been phenomenal playing together. Obviously, with the makeup of our team, we are going to need those guys on the floor a lot. They create mismatches because of their shooting.
“You know, you really have to give Mason a lot of credit. For his whole career, he’s been a 3 or a 2, small forward/off-guard, we are asking him to play power forward. It’s no secret, that’s what he played the whole game tonight, and he accepted that. We have a guard-laden team, a guard-laden roster, and we need him to play the power forward spot. Instead of wondering, ‘Hey, I don’t want to that.’ But you know what, when he plays power forward he’s got his greatest mismatch. You saw that tonight with a career-high.”
Jones and Joe broke down the Hogs’ big opening-night win.
“I was just letting the game come to me and the team had trust in me and knowing that Coach Musselman just wanted me to have fun and play,” Jones said. “This year, I just want to have fun. Last year, I pressed myself and I was inconsistent. I was overthinking a lot and so this year I just want to have fun and let the game come to me and let the cheerios fall where they may.”
“I have been working on other aspects of my game and playmaking has been one of them,” said Joe, known as one of the elite 3-point shooters in college basketball. “Being able to facilitate and create for my teammates because we have a lot of firepower and you just have to figure out how to utilize it, get people open and things of that sort. The system that we run that Coach Musselman has created for us is great, and it works great …”
In addition to Jones and Joe, Arkansas got solid games from junior guard Jalen Harris (10 points on 3-of-4 field goals including 2-of-2 from 3 plus 2-of-4 free throws, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals); sophomore guard Desi Sills (8 points on 4-of-8 field goals); senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (2 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds); senior forward Adrio Bailey (8 points on 4-of-7 field goals, a game-high 9 rebounds, and 1 block); senior forward Jeantal Cylla (5 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block); and sophomore forward Ethan Henderson (2 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block).
As a team, Arkansas was good offensively, especially in the second half, but the Hogs’ defense was stifling throughout.
Arkansas was solid in the preseason with its perimeter defense, and that form held true Tuesday night as the Razorbacks limited the Owls to 16-of-58 from the field (28.6%), including 2-of-25 from 3 (8.0%).
Impressive given that Rice’s four returning leading scorers from last season — Robert Martin, Chris Mullins, Ako Adams, and Trey Murphy III — combined to make 214 of 553 from 3 a year ago for 38.7%. On Tuesday, that quartet manged to combine for only 27 points. Adams accounted for both makes from 3 as he led Rice with 13 points and was the only Owl in double figures.
Arkansas dominated on the glass (45-27) but continued to struggle with turnovers by committing 21, although the Razorbacks forced 27 miscues on the other end as they enjoyed a 29-19 edge in points-off-turnovers.
Offensively, Arkansas finished the game shooting 37-of-67 from the field (55.2%) — including 21-of-34 for 61.8% in the second half — on 19 assists over the 40 minutes. The Hogs were 10-of-25 from 3 for 40%.
Much of that second-half shooting success came in transition as Arkansaa converted turnovers into a 30-15 advantage in fast-break points.
Additionally, Musselman said his coaching staff tracked 254 passes for his team on offense, surpassing the stated goal of 200 per game. Indeed, crisp and timely passes forced Rice out of position defensively from the outset.
“To score 91 points when we really are still trying to figure out kind of who we are and what our identity is …” Musselman said. “Now we had 21 turnovers so if we could get 10 of those back and have a shot on goal maybe we score a little bit more. Defensively I thought we were locked in. Probably only had three or four defensive missed assignments which is very few for an opening night.”
“And I think the count on our passes was right around 254 when our goal is 200. It’s the most passes that I’ve ever had a a college team have. So really good ball movement. They shared the ball. They had fun, they competed, they played with energy. They played with effort. They played with enthusiasm.”
For Arkansas, it was the program’s 103rd win all-time against Rice — the second-most wins against a single opponent in school history. The series goes back to their old Southwest Conference days that pre-dated the 1991-92 season when Arkansas joined the SEC.
Arkansas jumped out to a 6-0 lead on two 3-pointers by Jones, but Rice responded with an 8-0 spurt for an 8-6 lead at the 16:47 mark.
From there, the Hogs ran away from the Owls. Joe’s deep jumper capped a 14-2 run for a 20-10 Arkansas lead. Then, Joe and Jones both dunked as Arkansas closed out the first half leading 39-19.
The Hogs shot the ball well (16-of-33 for 48.5%), but it was the defensive end that stood out as Arkansas forced 12 first-half turnovers while holding Rice to 32.0% field goals (including 2-of-13 from 3 for 15.4%). Arkansas also dominated the glass (22-11).
Jones and Joe combined for 25 points in the first 20 minutes.
Arkansas jumped all over Rice to open the second half, using a 15-4 run for a 54-23 lead. Joe made his fourth triple to give Arkansas its biggest lead at the time, 73-31, with 8:36 to play.
Following their season-opening win against Rice, the Hogs will have a week to prepare for a home game against North Texas that is set to tip at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Nov. 12.