By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — If you’re an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball fan, you haven’t seen your team play a real game in over eight months. For that matter, the next time they do play you’re not going to recognize many faces.
The wait is over and the curtain will be pulled back tonight revealing 9 new Hogs among the 11 on scholarship as the start of season two of the Eric Mussleman era at Arkansas begins in earnest against Mississippi Valley State on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
It’s opening day of the 2020-21 college basketball season, and UA-MVSU will tip off around 6:30 p.m. CT in a game that will be livestreamed on SEC Network Plus. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, maximum attendance at BWA will be limited to 4,000 fans.
With the NCAA’s prohibition of playing preseason exhibition games due to the pandemic, the Hogs and Delta Devils will be taking their first shots against an opponent since March. The Hogs had one preseason dress rehearsal — the Red-White intrasquad scrimmage on Nov. 12 with students in attendance at BWA. The game is the first of two at BWA spanning the next three days as part of a multi-team exemption (MTE) event that will also bring North Texas to Fayetteville for a 5 p.m. matchup against Arkansas on Saturday.
“I think they are excited to play,” Mussleman said of his team during a Zoom virtual press conference on Monday. “There’s no doubt they are hungry for other competition. They were fired up for practice today (Monday). I can say that. I don’t know how they’ll come out on Wednesday but I know today, maybe it was because they didn’t have a long practice and weren’t with me for long time today. But they were spirited. They were hungry. Wanting to compete is upon us. Now it’s just time to go and produce.”
Arkansas finished year one under Musselman with a mid-March win over Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., before the college basketball season was ended apruptly due to the pandemic. It culminated a 20-12 season (including 8-11 in SEC games) in ’19-20. Gone are Co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones (also the league’s leading scorer a year ago) and the SEC’s most prolific shooter Isaiah Joe, along with Jimmy Whitt, Jr., Jalen Harris, Adrio Bailey, and Reggie Chaney who were all veteran holdovers from the previous coaching staff.
Two returnees — junior guard Desi Sills (picked preseason All SEC second team by the league coaches last week) and junior forward Ethan Henderson — welcome nine first-year Hogs in ’20-21 that are a mix of two traditional transfers (junior guard JD Notae and sophomore stretch-5 Connor Vanover), three senior-graduate transfers (3/4-combo forwards Justin Smith and Vance Jackson, Jr., and combo guard Jalen Tate), and four freshmen (Arkansas natives in wing Moses Moody, guard KK Robinson, guard Davonte “Devo” Davis, and forward / center Jaylin Williams).
The Razorbacks were a preseason pick to finish 6th in the 14-team SEC by the league’s media, and they enter tonight’s game with a preseason ranking of No. 54 in KenPom.com’s college basketball ratings.
MVSU finished ’19-20 with a 3-27 overall record (including 3-15 for 9th place in the SWAC). The Delta Devils return one double-figure scorer off last year’s team, guard Caleb Hunter who is the son of MVSU head coach and former NBA guard Lindsey Hunter. Caleb Hunter averaged 15.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists last season as a freshman. The Delta Devils lost their leading rebounder, 6-7 forward Brandon Kimble, who graduated and transferred to Arkansas as a walk-on for his senior season.
MVSU comes into tonight’s tilt with the worst ranking in KenPom.com — No. 357.
“Usually a player makes his biggest jump from his freshman to his sophomore year,” Musselman said of Caleb Hunter. “Obviously Hunter had a great freshman year so he’s obviously been a focal point of our preparation and then they obviously have a lot of junior college transfers, meaning guys that have at least two years of experience outside of high school basketball.
“And they play really, really fast. They try to get the ball up and score in the first 12 seconds. Fifty percent of their shots after a made basket are in the first 12 seconds. And like 80 percent after a missed shot and they secure a defensive rebound, 80 percent of their shots are within the first 12 seconds. So transition defense is going to have to be a must.”
As good as Arkansas’s defense was on the perimeter last season (the top three-point field goal percentage defense in the nation), the Hogs struggled with interior defense as well as transition defense. And though this is a new team — a taller, bigger, and deeper squad compared to last year — the Arkansas coaching staff has identified poor defensive execution and a collective lack of lateral mobility as problem areas.
Conversely, on offense the Hogs may have more viable three-point shooting threats in the backcourt and frontcourt combined than they’ve ever had before.
MVSU’s fast-paced offensive attack combined with Arkansas’ potential shooting from distance could lead to a high-scoring, fan-fun game.
Hogs’ projected starting lineup
Justin Smith, 6-7, senior
Moses Moody, 6-6, freshman
Desi Sills, 6-1, junior
Jalen Tate, 6-6, senior
Vance Jackson, Jr., 6-9, senior