LITTLE ROCK — Although Arkansas welcomes in its third opponent that to this point remains winless on the 2020-21 season, the Razorbacks’ game against Central Arkansas on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville nonetheless offers significant intrigue given that it’s the first time in over 70 years the Hoop Hogs have faced an in-state opponent in a regular-season matchup.
The Razorbacks (5-0) and Bears (0-3) are expected to tip around 7 p.m. CT in a game that will air on the SEC Alternate channel. Arkansas has a 6-0 all-time series record against UCA with all six games having been played between 1924 and 1947. The Hogs are 24-0 all time against in-state schools, including a 50-45 win over Arkansas Tech in Fayetteville on Nov. 29, 1950, which was the last time Arkansas played an in-state school in the regular-season (source: Hogstats.com).
Prior to Saturday’s game against UCA, the last time Arkansas competed against an in-state opponent in an official game was in March 1987 when the Razorbacks defeated Arkansas State in overtime in a National Invitation Tournament postseason contest at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. And just last season, Arkansas hosted and defeated the Little Rock Trojans in a preseason exhibition game in October when the program honored Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson by naming the court inside BWA after him.
Arkansas’ athletics department in recent years has relaxed the university’s long-standing policy of not scheduling games against in-state opponents (except for football). Not only has the Hogs’ hoops program embraced the notion of adding in-state schools to their non-conference slate, they actually considered playing UCA twice — on back-to-back days — because of a scheduling gap that opened when Tulsa had to back out of a mid-week game against Arkansas due to Covid-19 issues. That was resolved when the Razorbacks added Southern in a 48-hour schedule-and-play turnaround that led to a 79-44 Arkansas victory on Wednesday.
“I don’t know the exact extent of it, other than (Arkansas director of basketball operations Anthony) Ruta said, ‘What do you think about potentially playing a Friday-Saturday (against UCA) if we can’t figure something else out?’” recalled Head Hog Eric Mussleman during his Thursday press conference.
UCA — and NCAA Division 1 program located in Conway and a member of the Southland Conference — along with SWAC members Southern and Mississippi Valley State (the Hogs’ 142-62 victim in the season-opener on Nov. 25) were a combined 0-12 entering Friday. Collectively, Arkansas’ first 6 opponents (includes UCA) in ’20-21 carry an overall 4-22 win-loss record. The Razorbacks have won thier first five games by an average margin of 35.0 points.
Scouting the UCA Bears
Simply put, UCA plays fast, has excelled shooting the 3-ball, has turned the ball over frequently, and has been competitive under first-year head coach Anthony Boone. The Bears are 21-of-54 from 3 for a strong 38.9% through 3 games. Conversely, Arkansas — the nation’s top three-point field-goal-percentage defense a season ago — currently ranks 46th nationally (26.7%) after shutting down Southern to the tune of 1-of-13 from 3 (7.7%).
Senior 6-6 guard Rylan Bergersen — he began his career at BYU before transferring to UCA two years ago — leads the team with 17.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.3 steals in 35.7 minutes per game while shooting 56.7% from the field, including 6-of-11 from 3 (54.5%), and 66.7% from the free throw line. Senior 5-11 guard Deandre Jones is next with 13.7 points and 4.3 assists in 30.0 minutes per game while shooting 8-of-14 from 3 (57.1%) and 9-of-9 from the free throw line. UCA has five more players averaging between 5.3 and 8.0 points per game while playing between 19.0 and 26.7 minutes per game.
As a team UCA averages 72.0 points, 37.3 rebounds, 13.0 assists, 5.3steals, 1.7 blocks, and a whopping 24.7 turnovers per game while shooting 43.1% overall from the field (43.1%), including the aforementioned 38.9% from 3, and 71.8% from the free throw line.
The Bears led at Memphis, 42-40, at halftime before losing 85-68 in their season-opener. They lost by only three points, 86-83, at defending Sun Belt Conference champion Little Rock last Saturday, and they fell 88-65 on the road against top-tier Atlantic-10 program Saint Louis on Tuesday.
“We’re going to have to defend the three,” Musselman said. “I think it starts with … Jones at the point, the all-time assist leader, second-leading scorer. Then you move to Bergersen … who is their scorer. I actually coached against his father. They’re a good rebounding team, too. I mean they’re plus-3 on the glass, and they’ve played against UALR, Memphis, and St. Louis, so rebounding is gonna be important. Transition defense is going to be paramount. After a made basket, the first 12 seconds of your defense become really important. Fifty-four percent of their shots come within the first 12 seconds after a made basket. Usually teams run after a miss, they’re running after made baskets. So our transition from offense to defense, there’s going to have to be no lag time. You know, then our offense just can’t fight against itself. We’ve got to constantly play unselfish, which we have for most of the year.”
Hog trends and stats
* While UCA will be playing its 4th road game to open up ’20-21, Arkansas will be playing its 6th of 8 consecutive home games at BWA before opening up SEC play on the road at Auburn on Dec. 30. The subtraction of the game at Tulsa means Auburn becomes the Hogs’ first road test in ’20-21.
* Arkansas (5-0) has the best record in the SEC entering Friday, and the Hogs’ average winning-margin of 35.0 points per game leads the nation among teams that have played at least 4 games.
* Arkansas — the SEC’s worst rebounding team last season — is currently tops in the league in total rebounds per game at 48.2 (also ranks 5th nationally) and defensive rebounds per game at 33.8 (also ranks 10th nationally), and third in the league in offensive rebounds per game at 14.4. The Hogs are plus-71 on the glass — plus-14.2 per game, which ranks 13th nationally — through five games and have won the rebounding battle by double-digit margins in three games (including plus-20 in a couple of matchups).
* Hogs’ freshman guard Moses Moody had his best two games at Arkansas last week, averaging 21.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists while shooting 14-of-20 from the field for 70%, including 4-of-6 from 3 for 66.7%, and 10-of-13 free throws for 76.9% in wins over Texas-Arlington and Lipscomb, which earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors on Monday. He followed that up with 12 points (5-of-10 field goal shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3) and 5 rebounds in the win over Southern on Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 Little Rock native has started all five games in his fledgling Razorbacks career, scoring in double figures in each. He leads Arkansas in scoring (16.2 points per game, ranks 8th in the SEC and 2nd among league freshmen), he’s fourth on the team in rebounds per game (5.4), he’s tied for the 5th-most steals in the SEC (7), and his 25-of-29 free throw shooting (86.2%) is good for league ranks of 2nd most makes, 3rd most takes, and 4th in percentage (minimum 10 attempts). He’s shooting 47.1% from the field, including 8-of-20 from 3 for 40%. Beyond the stats, Moody’s collective plus/minus of plus-135 when he’s on the floor is the best on the team, upholding what the eye test seems to reveal: The team plays its best when Moody is in the game.
* Arkansas sophomore center Connor Vanover has been a defensive force through five games. He averages 10.0 points per game (57.6% field goals, including 45.0% from 3, and 100% free throws), but it’s his 8.8 rebounds (2nd in the SEC, minimum 2 games played), & 3.6 blocks (leads the SEC and is 4th-best in the nation in minimum 2 games played) in just 19.8 minutes per game is impressive enough, but his ability to alter countless shots and convert blocks into possessions when he’s on the floor has magnified his effectiveness and impact. Vanover is No. 8 in the nation in defensive win shares (0.6), according to sports-reference.com.
* His bounce just better than yours! Senior graduate-transfer Justin Smith (6-7) brought his reported 48-inch vertical leap to Fayetteville when he transferred from Indiana in the summer, and it was on full display on Wednesday when Smith jumped over and through Southern defenders three times for poster-worthy dunks, including two smashes that made ESPN Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays. Smith is second on the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game, rebounding at 5.8, and steals at 1.4.
* Junior guards Desi Sills and JD Notae have been a formidable 1-2, 6-foot-1 combo-guard punch! SEC coaches’ preseason All SEC second-team pick Sills of Jonesboro has started every game and is averaging 10.6 points (4th on the team) in 24.0 minutes per game, and he leads the Hogs and is tied for 2nd in the SEC with 9 steals. His 55.9% field goal shooting (19-of-34) has been an obvious plus (includes 7-of-16 from 3 for an impressive 43.8%), but free throw shooting (8-of-14 for 57.1%) needs to improve. Notae is averaging 11.6 points per game (3rd on the team) to go with 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 19.4 minutes off the bench
* With freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis having his best game as a Hog against Southern on Wednesday — 14 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists — it meant that all four of the Razorbacks freshmen have contributed double-digit production in at least one statistical category in a single game through the first five contests of the season. As mentioned above, Moody has reached double-digit scoring in all five games, while Davis and KK Robinson have both done so once (Robinson had 15 points in the season-opening win over MVSU). Freshman big man Jaylin Williams pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds against MVSU.
Analytics, polls, NCAAT projections
Arkansas entered Friday ranked No. 17 in Sagarin / USA Today ratings, No. 31 in ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index), and No. 34 in KenPom.com’s rankings. In ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s update on Tuesday (Dec. 8, 2020) to his projected 68-team NCAA tournament field, he slotted the Hogs as an 11-seed. Last week (Nov. 30), the Hogs received 2 voter points in the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 poll voted on by 65 media members that cover college basketball, but Arkansas did not receive any votes in the most-recent AP Top 25 poll that was released on Monday (Dec. 7). The NCAA’s initial NET rankings for ’20-21 have yet to be released.