‘Mussel Ball’ has small Hogs thriving early in season

Eric Musselman / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

It’s a little bit hard to get a true handle on Eric Musselman’s first Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team.

The Razorbacks gifted their head coach with another blowout victory on his birthday Tuesday night by frosting their fourth cupcake in a row in defeating Texas Southern, 82-51, on what was an off night shooting from the three-point line in the first half.

The Razorbacks missed every three-pointer they took in the first half on Tuesday (0-13) before sophomore guard Isaiah Joe found the range in the second half, swishing 6 of 9 treys to fuel his 29-point second half and his game-high 33-point performance. No other Razorback connected on a three-pointer.

However, the Hogs so thoroughly dominated with their defense that they would have ran away with the game even without Joe’s second-half, long-range barrage.

The Razorbacks choked the Tigers with their intense man-to-man defense into shooting just 34.5 percent from the field (19 of 55) and 18.2 percent from the three-point line (2 of 11) that Texas Southern’s three rebound advantage (39 to 36) didn’t matter.

Johnny Jones’ Tigers were the first opponent to score more than 50 points on the Razorbacks this season, but the pace of the game was by far the swiftest the Hogs have played this season, and still Texas Southern could only muster 51 points against the smallish Razorbacks who blocked 10 shots, forced 24 turnovers which they converted into 24 points.

The Razorbacks are statistically impressive, which is what you would expect from a team coached by a man obsessed with analytics.

The Hogs are thumping opponents by 30 points per game this season, holding opponents to 32.1 percent shooting. The Razorbacks are shooting a solid 45.6 percent from the field. Their 3-point percentage of 28 percent is a bit of drag on their overall shooting percentage. That could become an issue when the Razorbacks play bigger and more talented squads if they can’t become a bit more efficient in making treys.

Right now the Razorbacks are making up for the slightly low three-point shooting percentage by sinking free throws at an SEC-leading 77.2 percent clip. Even if that number slides a little over the course of the season, making free throws at that pace is a weapon.

Even with a small squad — that got a bit bigger with the reinstatement of 6-foot-8 Reggie Chaney to the team after a three-game suspension for breaking undisclosed team rules — the Razorbacks have held their own on the boards in their first four games.

The Razorbacks are averaging 35.5 rebounds and giving up the exact same amount. If the Hogs could maintain that effort over the course of the season it would be huge for them, but again with a team whose tallest contributor is just 6-foot-8, it’s likely going to be a struggle on the glass all season long.

Perhaps the most impressive quality thus far of this Razorback basketball team is their intensity and effort in executing Musselman’s game plan. I hate to say it, but the difference is glaring. We’ve seen more passion from Musselman’s Hardwood Hogs in four games than we saw in 22 football games from Chad Morris’ Razorbacks.

It’s rare to see the buy-in that Musselman has achieved with the Razorbacks in such a short time.

From their effort, you can tell the Hogs are all-in on Musselman’s philosophy, and it shows up all over the Razorbacks’ statistics sheet, but where it is most evident is the Hogs’ passionate play on the floor.

Perhaps the player that best exemplifies this is senior Adrio Bailey. The 6-6 senior from Clarence, La. is playing like a new basketball player in Musselman’s system. He’s accepted his role as a defender, rebounder, and facilitator, and is playing the game with a zeal that is infectious. He’s averaging 8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks per game, and last week had the first double-double of his career with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Montana.

Bailey’s doing the blue-collar work for the Hogs and is busting his tail to play the best basketball of his career. That’s what every coach wants from a senior player.

I’d liken his play so far to other Razorback seniors who rose to the occasion to be the beating heart of their team like Keith Wilson who showed Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller what it meant to be Razorbacks when they were freshmen in 1988-89 or Darrell Hawkins and Robert Shepherd who did the same as seniors in 1993 for “Richardson Runts,” which included eventual national champions Scotty Thurman, Corliss Williamson, Dwight Stewart and Corey Beck in their first year as Razorbacks.

Of course the abundance of talent on this Razorback squad is in the sophomore class with sharp-shooter Joe, all-around guard and tough guy Desi Sills, and Chaney, who has yet to fully tap into his potential.

Even on an off night like Tuesday where Joe missed his first 5 three-pointers, you just believe every shot he puts up is going to fall. He’s averaging a team high 20.5 ppg. Sills is aggressive in attacking the basket. He has a nasty tenacity that reminds me a bit of Patrick Beverly.

As much as I have enjoyed the ferocity in which Bailey is playing, I also like the calm, cool, and collected play of Jimmy Whitt Jr. The long-armed graduate transfer from SMU who returned to the Razorbacks this season is a grounding force for the Hogs so far. When the three-ball wasn’t falling Tuesday, he turned on his mid-range game, backing guys down and shooting over them, facilitating, and scoring in transition. He also pulled down a team-high 10 boards Tuesday night. Whitt’s averaging 11.5 ppg.

Tuesday wasn’t junior Mason Jones night, scoring just 6 points, but he’s averaging 18.3 ppg. this year with his explosive play that makes him as dangerous behind the 3-point arc as he is when he drives to the basket. When he’s been fouled, Jones has made teams pay, hitting 23 of 23 shots from the charity stripe this season. His streak of consecutive made free throws is at 32, stretching back to last season.

Junior Jalen Harris continues to play well at the point and on defense like he did a year ago, but he is more confident in his shot. Senior graduate transfer Jeantal Cylla is still adjusting to his new role with the Razorbacks, but the 6-7 forward’s experience and athleticism should begin to pay off more and more for the Hogs as the season moves along.

The big question, though, is how will the Razorbacks respond when they play better talent?

Frankly, the Razorbacks have made their opponents look like chopped liver so far this season, and with such a small sample size, it’s hard to know if the Razorbacks are as strong as their numbers appear or if their work is exaggerated by playing a downy soft schedule through their first four games.

Time will tell, of course, but right now it’s just fun to watch the Razorbacks win.

The Razorbacks complete what has been a rather busy November schedule during the next 10 days with three games.

The first is Friday at 8 p.m. against South Dakota in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network. On Monday the Razorbacks take to the road for the first time this season for a game against Georgia Tech at 6 p.m. in Atlanta. The ACC Network is handling the broadcast for the game. Arkansas returns to the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena on Nov. 30 to work off the excess turkey against Northern Kentucky at 4 p.m. in a game that will be streamed on SEC +.

By the end of the month, we’ll have an even better picture of what Musselman’s first Razorback team is capable of. So far, while I miss the up-and-down action of Mike Anderson’s style of play, Musselman’s Hogs are winning me over with their intensity, attention to detail, and zeal for playing the game.