FAYETTEVILLE — The only thing better than first-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman’s decision to breathe basketball life back into historic Barnhill Arena for the annual Red-White game Saturday was the announced crowd of 4,559 that conjured up a hearty, nostalgic buzz amplifying the start of a new era of Razorbacks basketball.
The throwback-themed game to honor legendary Arkansas coaches Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson — who combined for four Final Fours with Barnhill serving as home-base from the mid-1970s through the early-1990s — perfectly framed the unique flashback to the program’s gloried past that Musselman hopes to harness for a Hogs’ return to national relevance under his watch.
Sutton and Richardson were both in attendance for a game that saw the current Hogs switch rosters at halftime, and sophomore forward Reggie Chaney scored a game-high 19 points and Team Eddie defeated Team Nolan, 62-54, in what marked the first basketball game at Barnhill in nearly 26 years.
In fact, the last game played here was the Red-White game that kicked off Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach Richardson’s 1993-94 national championship season at Arkansas, which authored the beginning of brand-new, spacious Bud Walton Arena where all of the Hogs’ regular-season home games were played that season and in every campaign since.
“When we first tossed the idea around I don’t think we ever could of envisioned Coach Richardson and Coach Sutton would be here together,” Musselman said. “To be able to do the photo op afterwards with our guys. Monday we we’ll really dive into the history of both coaches and what they did for this program.
“I thought this was really good for us. The training camp time segment is one where you’re going against each other every day behind closed doors. You are doing a lot of skeleton work, 5-on-0 work and a lot of drills when there’s contact. To play in front of fans and have the lights on and referees was much needed after grinding all summer and then this segment for us.”
Chaney, who at 6-8 and 222 is Arkansas’s biggest frontline scholarship player, credited his offseason work for his productive game.
“I think today I was just trying to put in everything I’ve been working on through practice and just being at the gym, working on my finish and my footwork, working on my shooting, as well,” Chaney said. “I just try to put all that in to aspects when we play.”
Sophomore-transfer Connor Vanover — he’s still waiting on the NCAA to rule on his waiver request for immediate playing eligibility — finished with 15 points (including 3-of-6 from 3), 7 rebounds, and 2 steals.
Vanover’s offensive interaction with the guards in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations stood out as a positive, and defensively his 7-foot-3 frame caused players to alter their shots in the paint.
“I hate to bring it up but we’re a lot different when (Vanover’s) on the floor,” Musselman said. “Because he spaces it. He adds a dimension from his size factor, but his three-point shooting when you put him out there with some of other guys our spacing just opens up. Then there’s a lot more dribble-drives. It’s not often you say your dribble-drive lanes open up when a 7-2 or 7-3 guy is on the floor. But when Connor’s on the floor our passing becomes a lot better, our rebounding becomes a lot better, and our offensive flow becomes a lot better.”
Star sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith had 12 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal.
“I thought especially from the first segment of the game offensively that Isaiah Joe was outstanding with his three-point shooting, spacing and not trying to force the issue,” Musselman said.
Joe said his team-high in assists revealed part of his maturation as a player.
“During the off-season, I have been working on a lot of different things, being able to show other aspects of my game and doing what I do best, which is knocking down shots,” Joe said. “So just showing that I had a more diverse playbook in my game is one of the things I have been going for.”
Junior wing Mason Jones and sophomore combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro each finished with 10 points, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Senior transfer forward Jeantal Cylla had 11 points and 5 rebounds, while senior transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists.
“I liked how he didn’t force the issue from an offensive standpoint,” Musselman said of Whitt, who played as a freshman at Arkansas in 2015-16 before transferring to SMU only to return to Fayetteville for his senior season. “He’s one of the best rebounding guards in the nation.”
Free and open to the public, the turn-back-the-clock game had former Hog players and coaches in attendance with fans and coaches wearing vintage 1980s Razorbacks gear and clothes. For the 2019-20 Hoops Hogs — they stuck around to sign autographs for fans after the game — the four-quarter affair served as their first of three preseason dress-rehearsals.
Next up, Arkansas will host the Little Rock Trojans on Sunday, Oct. 20, in a charity exhibition game, marking the first meeting in basketball between the two schools on a night when the Razorbacks will unveil Nolan Richardson court at Bud Walton Arena. The Hogs will then welcome NCAA Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State to BWA on Friday, Oct. 25, for their final exhibiton game.
“Now we’ve got a two-week stretch before we get to compete again,” Musselman said. “But this will be a great opportunity for our staff to individually watch some film with guys and also to watch it collectively as a team and try to clean up some of the areas from an execution standpoint.
“I thought from an execution offensively we might probably be a little ahead of where I thought we would be as far as spacing. Defensively we’ve got to be a lot better in a lot of areas.”
The Razorbacks begin the regular-season on Tuesday, Nov. 5 — which is the opening day for college basketball — by hosting old Southwest Conference foe Rice at BWA. Arkansas has beaten Rice 102 times, which is the second-most wins against a single opponent in school history.