LITTLE ROCK — While it’s true that Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman and Texas Southern head coach Johnny Jones forged a friendship while working together on a couple of college staffs in recent years, do not expect that goodwill to spill over and translate to a slippage in the Razorbacks’ focus and intensity that has so far resulted in one of the most formidable defenses in college basketball.
Arkansas (3-0) hosts Texas Southern (0-3) at 7 p.m. CT Tuesday on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in a game that can be seen live via SEC Network Plus. It marks the second of four November home games for the Hogs in an event that is being billed as the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow.
Musselman — who hopes to celebrate his birthday with a win Tuesday — served as associate head coach under Jones in 2014-15 while he was head coach at LSU, and Jones served as associate head coach under Musselman in ’17-18 while he was head coach at Nevada.
“Really unique how the relationship started,” Musselman recalled during his Monday press conference. ” I had an opportunity to go to Minnesota with the Timberwolves with Flip Saunders. Flip had played for my dad and was coach and part owner of the Wolves. And it would have been really comfortable for me because I’ve known Flip for so long and Johnny called the same week, actually. I had never met Coach Jones but one of his assistants David Patrick who is now the head coach at Riverside is a good friend of mine and said, ‘Hey, get on a plane to Baton Rouge. At least come have dinner with us if nothing else. It’s not wasting a flight from the Bay Area to Baton Rouge.’
“And I really liked Coach Jones a lot. Sat down with the family and we wanted to stay on the path of college coaching and so passed up what could have been a really comfortable situation with the Timberwolves to go with Coach Jones and it was awesome.”
Their paths intersect once again as the Tigers look to pick up their first win of the season against an unbeaten Hoop Hogs team that has fielded a nationally ranked defense.
• Arkansas and defending national champion Virginia both have held each of their first three opponents below 50 points scoring, the first time that an NCAA Division 1 team has done that in 70 years (1949-50).
• Arkansas’ 10.3% three-point defense ranks 3rd in the NCAA. the Hogs held Rice (2-of-25), North Texas (2-of-17) and Montana (2-of-16) to a combined 6-of-58 from 3-point range.
• Arkansas’ 44.0 points-per-game scoring defense ranks 3rd in the NCAA. The Hogs have held opponents to 46 points or less.
• Arkansas’ 31.3% field-goal-percent defense ranks 5th in the NCAA. The Hogs held Rice to 28.6% shooting overall, North Texas (which missed its first 11 shots) to 33.3% shooting, and Montana to 32.1%.
• Arkansas’ 22.67 turnovers forced per game ranks 8th in the NCAA. The Hogs forced Rice into 27 turnovers, North Texas into 18, and Montana into 23.
• Arkansas’ 12.0 steals per game ranks 10th in the NCAA. The Hogs had 14 steals vs. Rice and 11 each versus North Texas and Montana.
Texas Southern has struggled offensively, averaging only 58.0 points per game on 33.2% field goal shooting (including 28.6% from 3) while committing 15.3 turnovers per outing. Senior 6-8 forward and former Purdue Boilermaker Eden Ewing leads the team with 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, although he did not play in the Tigers’ most-recent game. Senior 5-10 guard Tyrick Armstrong is averaging 10.2 points, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals per game.
“If you look at the roster, they have some transfers that have played at some big programs,” Musselman said. “Eden Ewing played at Purdue, and big Jethro (Tshisumpa) inside played at Arizona State. He’s an incredible shot blocker, his shot blocks per minutes is off the charts. They got a Texas A&M transfer. They got some guys that are really talented.
“I think the biggest thing is just like, another opportunity against somebody that we feel could win their league. Another program that has made NCAA Tournaments as of late. You look at their game at Baylor last year when they went into Baylor and won, you look at their game at Oregon, where they won last year, we have to be ready to play tomorrow night, for sure.”
As good as Arkansas’s defense has been and aside from an impressive passing and scoring performance in the season-opener against Rice (254 passes, 19 assists, 91 points), the Razorbacks struggled shooting the ball against low-scoring, slow-tempo opponents North Texas and Montana. In wins over the latter two opponents in the last two games, Arkansas shot a combined 40-of-99 from the field for 40.4%, including a combined 10-of-42 from 3 for 23.8%.
Sophomore guard and preseason All SEC pick Isaiah Joe is Arkansas’s second leading scorer (16.3 points per game), leader in 3-pointers made (10) and 3-point shooting percentage (38.5), and leader in assists (3.8 per game). But in his last game against Montana, he was only 2-of-13 shooting (including 2-of-9 from 3). Sophomore Desi Sills finished the ’18-19 season as one of Arkansas’s top 3-point shooters — making a blistering 60-plus-percent in the final 8 games as a starter — but he is 0-of-11 from distance so far in ’19-20.
“Some of our guys we want them to look at clips of maybe all of their misses they’ve had,” Musselman said. “Not just one particular guy, but we’ve done that with 3-4 guys where they get a look at some of their shots that they’ve made, some of the shots that they’ve missed and try to figure out are they missing long? Are they missing short? Missing right, missing left? Are you shooting it off the bounce? Or are they catch and shoots? How close was the defense to you on your shot attempts?
“All of those things we’re constantly trying to evolve as a staff with our guys and with our individual players when a guys has some misses on a particular night to build their confidence up and kind of for them to self-diagnose their own game like a Major League Baseball hitter going in the back if he strikes out and taking a look at his at-bats. It’s the same thing we want with our guys when they go through certain shooting slumps or off nights, or whatever you want to call it.”
Conversely, Arkansas has been good getting to the free throw line and making the freebies once they get there. The Hogs are shooting 20.3 free throws per game and making them at a 77.0% clip. Also, the Hogs have gotten better taking care of the basketball. Following a 21-turnover performance in the opener against Rice, Arkansas suffered a combined 23 giveaways in the last two games and stands plus-24 on the season.
Junior wing Mason Jones leads the team and is near the top of the SEC in scoring with 22.3 points per game (on 51.3% field goals and 21-of-21 free throw shooting) to go with 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 3.0 steals. Senior forward Adrio Bailey leads Arkansas and is one of the league leaders in rebounds (8.3) and steals (2.3). Senior guard Jimmy Whitt has been a consistent and reliable jack-of-all-trades, averaging 9.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.7 steals.
It is uncertain if sophomore forward Reggie Chaney will return from an indefinite suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules that has caused him to miss the first three games, but Musselman did not close the door on Chaney making his ’19-20 debut against Texas Southern.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to make a statement as early as (Tuesday) on Reggie’s status,’ Musselman said.
Up next for Arkansas is the third matchup of the four November home-game Collegiate Hoops Roadshow against South Dakota, set to tip around 8 p.m. CT Friday (SEC Network) on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.