By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — There has been an early-SEC-play pattern shift at Arkansas under head coach Eric Musselman spanning the past three seasons, which is to say we can now include the second league game of the 2022-23 campaign in further establishing, and examining, an obvious theme: The Head Hog will tweak and divert from his top player rotations while adjusting to the challenges of matching up with SEC talent and schemes.

Two years ago (’20-21) it was plugging freshmen Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams into the top rotation mid-game after the Hoop Hogs, then 2-4 to start league play, had fallen behind at home by 18 points against a very average Auburn team. Arkansas would come back to win that game by the narrowest of margins to ignite a 12-game winning streak against league teams that extended into the postseason SEC tournament with momentum carrying the team all the way to to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight and a final national Top 10 ranking — all with Davis and Williams remaining as fixtures in the top rotation.

Last season (’21-22), it was inserting little-used senior Wichita State transfer forward Trey Wade into the starting lineup in a game that turned into an Arkansas blowout home win over Missouri to right the ship after the Hogs began league play 0-3 as part of an overall 5-losses-in-6-games slide, and the result moving forward was another run to a stellar finish in league play followed by a second consecutive run to the NCAAT Elite Eight and a national Top 10 ranking.

After an 0-1 start in league play last week, the 13th-ranked Hogs (12-2, 1-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 10) found themselves down 25-8 at home against 20th-ranked Missouri, and it was Musselman’s judgment to turn to little-used freshman wing Joseph Pinion of Morrilton in the first half, which sparked a methodical run to whittle the Tigers’ lead down to 7 points, 34-27, at halftime before Pinion started the second half to help the Hogs to a 47-point explosion in the final 20 minutes en route to a 74-68 victory that evened up the team’s early record in SEC play (1-1).

Pinion not only led the Hogs in first-half scoring (7 points, and his first triple was the first time in what seemed like an eternity that the Hogs pulled within a single-digit deficit); he not only finished with a career-high 13 points (4-of-7 field goals, including 3-of-6 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws); he not only hit half of the team’s three-point shots (the rest of the Hogs were 3-of-15 from distance); but he showed toughness, grit, and poise while mixing in some blue-collar contributions in his first true extended role since high school.

The pressure for someone, anyone, to step up was certainly underlined given the Hogs have been shorthanded with starters and stars Nick Smith, Jr. (out indefinitely, knee management) and Trevon Brazile (out for the remainder of the season, knee surgery) no longer in the lineup. Then throw in that leading scorer and junior Wichita State transfer combo guard Ricky Council IV was struggling mightily to start league play — for all of the LSU road loss and in the first half against Mizzou — and it illustrates just how significant Pinion’s contributions were.

Pinion not only got the second half start, but it was in place of Council. Gutsy call by Musselman, and apparently one that proved to be genius given that Council erupted for 21 second-half points playing off the bench as he finished with a game-high 25 points to go with 7 rebounds. His 11-of-13 free throw effort was capped by hitting 5-of-6 at the line in the final 25 seconds to ice the win. Council’s re-born effectiveness creating off his drive game into the paint for finishes at the rim, pull-up jumpers, and drawing fouls to get to the line resembled his excellence offensively in non-conference play as one of the league’s most dangerous scorers.

Pinion hit his second and third three-point shots at critical times in the second-half run that saved the day for the Hogs. His transition three — those are rare on this particular Arkansas team — on a nice set-up by freshman point guard Anthony Black pulled the Hogs within a one-point deficit, 38-37, at the 16:55 mark, and his third and final make from distance also came off a Black assist while extending Arkansas to a 4-point lead, 46-42, with 13:42 to play and coming moments after the Hogs had secured their first lead of the game.

“Joseph has done what you would hope, which all of our guys have staying ready, getting shots up, getting reps up, taking practice serious,” Musselman said during his Thursday zoom press conference. “I think all of our guys have done a really good job of that. He got an opportunity. Joseph’s strength is an area we’ve struggled in. He can make threes. He can stretch the defense out. He has a really quick release.”

Aside from the irony of back-to-back seasons involving turnarounds against Missouri with Wichita State transfers factoring in, and the unlikely / atypical Pinion-Council combo combining for 38 points as the Hogs’ two most lethal scorers to counter an opponent in Mizzou that has elite offensive firepower, the elephant-in-the-room question emerging from Wednesday night’s comeback victory is: Will Pinion factor into the top 6-7 player rotation moving forward in keeping with Musselman’s early-SEC-play rotation tweak tradition?

It’s too soon to say for sure, in part because the Hogs are not deep into an SEC downward spiral like they were in the previous two seasons when changes were made and because specific matchup challenges will be different game-to-game, but also because solving the Hogs’ offensive problems as it relates to the team’s biggest weakness — three-point shooting — is as much about when and how often the team should launch from distance as it is about who can help knock down shots beyond the arc.

The Hogs combined for 10-of-46 shooting from 3 against LSU and Missouri, a dismal 21.7% that helps illuminate that for this team, getting into the paint, and to the rim, and to the free throw line in concert with a proven strong defense is the best formula for winning. But the two league Tigers each threw zone defenses at the Hogs, packing things in and daring Arkansas to take shots from three. Too often, the team obliged.

Pinion offers a real threat for the Hogs on offense, not just because of his quick-strike ability as a three-point shooter — 6-of-15 from 3 for 40% on the season, albeit a small sample size — but because of his ability to stretch the floor, draw defensive attention (a.k.a. gravity), and help expand spacing to open up driving lanes for teammates. Defensively, Pinion is a work in progress with challenges in lateral footwork and quickness needed to stay attached on drives. However, he’s a good athlete with a sturdy frame, and he’s shown a willingness to physically challenge for rebounds and 50/50 balls while striving to recover and get back into plays on defense when ball-handlers beat him off the initial bounce.

Something else to consider: Although his performance in a career-high 27 minutes against Missouri could be viewed as an outlier to this point, there have been signs leading up to that moment. In the previous game against LSU when the Hogs shot 0-of-13 from the three in the first half, Musselman put Pinion in for two minutes to see if that would help provide a remedy. Road game, SEC game, and Pinion gets run during crunch time in a tight game. And the contest before that — the Hogs’ final non-conference game prior to league play against an overwhelmed North Carolina-Asheville squad — Pinion registered a then-career-high 10 points in a then-career-high 19 minutes. Granted, that was a vastly inferior opponent against whom most if not all of the Hogs excelled, but Pinion has made the most of his opportunities which has earned him more opportunities.

“At times, we’ve really needed perimeter shooting,” Musselman said. “He was able to provide that for us. Some other nights it might be a different type player that’s needed. In our San Diego State game, Barry Dunning played seven minutes in that game because we needed some physicality and some length and needed a guy that could guard kind of a 3-4 against San Diego State based on some foul trouble.

“So you just never know when you’re going to be called upon. You just hope that when you go in, you can produce and help the team.”

Pinion was the latest Hog outside of the top rotation to seize his moment on a big stage.

“Whenever I hit my first 3, I felt like I might have to play a little bit (on Wednesday night),” Pinion said immediately following the Razorbacks’ win over Mizzou. “Our shots weren’t falling in the first half, but I’m glad that I was able to hit some 3s and help us.”