Razorbacks roar past Rice in Musselman’s debut

Arkansas junior guard Mason Jones / Photo: @razorbackmbb

Despite being a small team with a short roster, the Arkansas Razorbacks showed up big Tuesday night in their season opener, running the Rice Owls out of Bud Walton Arena with effort, discipline, and never-say-die attitude.

The Hogs plastered the Owls, 91-43, to give Eric Musselman his first win as a Razorback head coach and extend the program’s home-opening winning streak to 26 out of 26 seasons in the Palace of Mid-America in front of an announced crowd of 17,224.

Never short on showing emotion, Musselman raced to mid-court during a timeout after senior Adrio Bailey broke loose for a dunk.

“When we are winning, I like to have fun, too,” Musselman said. “I think crowds feed off us. If we’re playing well I’ll probably do it again. I’m kind of an emotional guy.

“Sorry if I offended anyone,” Musselman said with a wry smile and a chuckle.

The only thing offensive about the game was 21 turnovers by the Razorbacks along with some bad news prior to the game. Arkansas announced that 7-foot-3 center Connor Vanover would have to redshirt this season after the NCAA denied him a waiver for immediate eligibility.

“I don’t agree with [the decision on] Connor,” Musselman said. “I thought he had a good case.”

Compounding matters, the Razorbacks played without 6-8 sophomore Reggie Chaney, whom Musselman suspended from the team indefinitely for breaking team rules. Chaney was on the bench, and is practicing with the team, but Musselman, who called Chaney a great kid, did not say when the young man would be reinstated.

“I thought the guys did a great job with a limited roster so to speak,” Musselman said. “I guess in the last four years I’ve been kind of used to having a roster that’s seven or eight. I’m proud of how everyone’s worked to make up the difference. We’ll see where it goes from here.”

The Hogs are going to be a small team this season even with Chaney, who along with Ethan Henderson at 6-8 are the team’s tallest players. The lack of size did not hinder the Hogs against Rice, but Musselman knows it will present challenges for his team this season.

“I looked up at one point and Isaiah Joe was playing the power forward spot,” Musselman said. “I looked up later and he was playing point guard. From a versatility standpoint, our guys have done a good job of learning different positions.”

Arkansas blistered the nets, shooting 55 percent from the field for the game and 40 percent from the 3-point line.

Mason Jones led the Razorbacks with career-highs 32 points, 5 steals, and 7 rebounds, while chipping in 3 assists. Joe added 24 points and 7 assists. Jalen Harris added 10 points with Adrio Bailey scoring 8 points and leading the team with 9 rebonds.

To score 91 points while the Hogs are still trying to figure out who they are and what their identity is on offense was impressive, but what caught my attention was the Razorbacks’ defensive intensity from the opening tip of this season and the Musselman era.

The Hogs absolutely smothered Rice, forcing the Owls into 27 turnovers and allowing them to shoot just 28.6 percent from the field and 8 percent from the three-point line.

“Defensively, we were locked in,” Musselman said. “We only had three or four missed assignments, which was very few for an opening night.”

Arkansas sophomore guard Desi Sills / Photo: @razorbackmbb

The Razorbacks showed their scrappiness and desire on the glass and on the floor, winning the rebound battle 45-27 by blocking out and chasing down loose balls like madmen. It was a sight for sore eyes. It might have been the best team-rebounding effort since the Eddie Sutton era.

That’s an exaggeration, and Rice didn’t appear to be a very good basketball team, probably not as good as Arkansas exhibition opponents Arkansas-Little Rock or Southwestern Oklahoma State, but the Hogs’ dedication to defense and rebounding was clear as was the player’s buy-in to Musselman’s system.

“We know who we are,” Musselman said of his team’s stature. “We talk about it all the time. We’re not big. We’re not dominate around the paint.”

Fundamentals and disciplined play is going to be important for the Razorbacks to be competitive in the SEC, and Musselman liked what he saw in the Hogs’ first game.

“Defensively we were phenomenal going straight up and not trying to block shots,” Musselman said. “We did a good job a drawing some charges. We’re going to have to go vertical and make teams shoot over extended hands.

“When the ball is loose — meaning rebounds, loose balls — we’ve got to run through the ball. I thought we did a great job. We were really aggressive going after loose balls. We’re going to have to win those 50/50 balls based on our lack of size.”

The Razorbacks don’t have the sheer size to win the rebounding wars on talent, but Musselman is asking his players to make up the difference with grit, toughness, and discipline.

“We’ve got to collectively rebound one through five,” Musselman said. “We have to understand we’re small, and we have to do it one through five. We’ve talked about if you can’t grab the ball with two hands, then slap it toward our rim and go chase it. We’re trying to out-react people because we are small. I thought the effort tonight was great.”

Discipline isn’t only a defensive concept in Musselman’s system. It counts on offense, too. Musselman and his staff have trained each player to know what a “good” shot is for his individual skill set, and he got solid results in the opener.

“I think we had one bad shot,” Musselman said. “It was when Jones was feeling it, and let a three go when he was off-balance.”

Musselman, who studies analytics like Einstein studied physics, said the Hogs passed the ball 254 times on the offensive end outstripping the team goal of 200.

“It’s the most passes I’ve had with a college team.” Musselman said. “They shared the ball and had fun. They played with energy, effort and enthusiasm.”

Musselman went into the game worried about the team being sloppy, but he was pleased with their offensive execution.

“Guys that checked in did a really good job of understanding spacing and knowing their second and third option,” Musselman said. “It’s really easy for a team to know their first option, but when the defense takes away an option, how do you read and react to what the defense is giving you? I thought our guys did a good job.”

Musselman said he likes that the players have grown to trust him and his staff in such a relatively short time.

“There is a trust factor with guys even with the short time we’ve been here with guys asking to come out of the game,” Musselman said. “Sometimes guys don’t want to let a staff know when they need a blow because they are worried about when they are going to get back in. We had four guys ask to come out of the game, and we got them back in real quick to try to reward them.”

The blow-out victory was a great way to start the Musselman era, but the head Hog knows most games won’t come as easily, but the effort that the Razorbacks gave in the opener is the type a team can build upon.

I’m looking forward to seeing how much they have progressed when they host North Texas at 7 p.m. Tuesday.