Indiana size to test Razorbacks’ fortitude

University of Arkansas students finished final exams over a week ago, but Eric Musselman’s Razorback basketball team hits the road this weekend for their final test of 2019 at Bloomington, Ind.

The Razorbacks (10-1) close out 2019 at 5 p.m. (CT) Sunday with their toughest matchup of the season thus far when they face the Indiana Hoosiers (11-1) at Assembly Hall. The game is being televised by the Big Ten Network.

It’s the two esteemed programs’ third meeting in just over a year. The squads split last year with the Razorbacks hanging on to upend the Hoosiers, 73-72, in Bud Walton Arena, and Indiana topping the Hogs, 63-60, at Assembly Hall in the second round of the NIT to end Arkansas’ season and Mike Anderson’s tenure as the Razorbacks’ coach.

By the way, Anderson has his St. John’s Red Storm off to a solid season with a 12-2 start. They’ll take a seven-game winning streak into their Dec. 31 game against Butler, but I digress.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Indiana
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 29
Where: Assembly Hall – Bloomington, Ind.
TV: Big Ten Network

Remaining schedule

Jan. 4 – Texas A&M
Jan. 8 – at LSU
Jan. 11 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 15 – Vanderbilt
Jan. 18 – Kentucky
Jan. 22 – at Mississippi State
Jan. 25 – TCU
Jan. 29 – South Carolina
Feb. 1 – at Alabama
Feb. 4 – Auburn
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M

Interestingly enough, both the Hogs and the Hoosiers lost stars to the NBA in Daniel Gafford and Romeo Langford respectively, but it can be argued that each team has actually improved from last season.

Archie Miller’s Hoosiers are already 1-1 in Big 10 play with an 84-64 gut-punch loss to Wisconsin on Dec. 7 and a 96-90 overtime win over Nebraska at home on Dec. 13. The Hoosiers topped Notre Dame, 62-60, on Dec. 21 before taking a break for Christmas.

The Razorbacks’ only loss so far this season came also came on Dec. 7 when the Hogs blew a 5-point lead late in the game at Western Kentucky before eventually falling 86-79 in overtime in a contest Musselman said the Razorbacks should have won. The Razorbacks bounced back with a 98-79 victory over Tulsa and 72-68 victory over Valparaiso on Dec. 21.

Musselman has had the Razorbacks back to work since Christmas evening in preparation for their final challenge before opening Southeastern Conference play at 6 p.m. Jan. 4 at home against Texas A&M.

The Razorbacks, whose NET Rating is 33, have some decent wins, but the Indiana matchup will be the Hogs’ first game against a squad with a Top-30 Net Rating. Indiana beat NET No. 25 Florida State, otherwise the Razorbacks hold the highest Net Rating of any Indiana opponents.

The game is big for both teams who want to make the leap from the NIT back to the NCAA Tournament. A victory over Arkansas would keep the Hoosiers on track, but a win for the Razorbacks would be worth Calling the Hogs over. For whatever reason, the NCAA Selection Committee loves to see non-conference road victories, and esteems them greater than a conference road victory in their eyes.

The Hogs have split their pre-conference road games so far with a solid overtime victory at Georgia Tech with the one that got away at Western Kentucky. A win against the Hoosiers would mitigate that loss and have the Razorbacks riding high into SEC play next week.

A loss would, of course, continue to have Hog fans questioning how good the Razorbacks are as they stick their nose in SEC play.

Realistically, this game will have a bearing on how Indiana and Arkansas are viewed nationally and by the NCAA Selection Committee come March. It is clearly the biggest non-conference game on both’s schedule, and one of their biggest games of the season period.

Both squads favor three-guard lineups. Actually, you could argue that the Razorbacks play their best with four guards on the floor. But the similarities end there.

The Hoosiers have a distinct size advantage over the Razorbacks with 6-9 freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis leading the way at 245 pounds. He leads Indiana in scoring with 15 ppg. and rebounding with 8.9 rpg.

Junior forward Justin Smith is another load for the Hoosiers at 6-7, 230 pounds. He averages 12.7 ppg. and 5.3 rebounds. Junior Joey Brunk stands 6-11, 245 and averages 5.5 boards a game along with 7.3 points.

One might reason it’s going to be Arkansas’ quickness versus the Hoosiers’ size, but Indiana is a well rounded team with junior guard Al Durham (6-4, 185) and Davonte Green (6-3, 185). Green averages 12.3 peg., while Durham averages 12.2. Armaan Franklin (6-4, 195) is another big guard who is equally effective defender whether he starts or comes off the bench.

Miller uses a 10-man rotation regularly with 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes a game. Musselman’s core group of seven does most of the work for the Razorbacks. It will be interesting to see if Musselman might go a bit deeper into his bench in this game. The 6-foot-8 sophomore Ethan Henderson held his own against the Hoosiers in their last meeting, picking up minutes from Gafford who opted not to play in the NIT.

Even if Henderson is able to contribute, this will be a huge game for Razorback forwards Adrio Bailey (6-6, 217) and Reggie Chaney (6-8, 222). Both have done a good job of fronting post players this season, but for the most part the Hogs have not played a team with more than one talented big man inside this season. Indiana is a good test for the Razorbacks who will see much more size on a nightly basis in SEC play.

Bailey and Chaney have to bust their tails on defense, but still be disciplined. Arkansas can’t afford silly fouls away from the basket, and they have to be judicious when trying to block shots to make sure they don’t take themselves out of rebounding position too often.

As always the Razorbacks will have to gang rebound in an effort to keep it close on the boards. Mason Jones not only leads the Hogs in scoring at 19.6 ppg., but also in rebounding with 6.2 rpg. Jimmy Whitt Jr. is second in rebounding with 5.8 rpg. and third in scoring at 14.8 ppg.

Jones, who leads the NCAA in free-throw shooting at 93 percent, and Whitt have to score, but it certainly would be nice to see Isaiah Joe hit a hot streak from behind the three-point line. Joe is averaging 16.8 ppg. but is only hitting 36.8 percent of his field goals and 34.2 percent of his 3-pointers.

However, the Razorbacks live and die with their defense and decision making this season under Musselman. The Hogs will tighten the screws on the perimeter and deny the ball inside. How well Indiana guards handle that pressure will likely be the key to the game. If Arkansas’ perimeter pressure doesn’t bother the Hoosiers much, the Razorbacks could face a long night inside the paint with Jackson-Davis, Smith and Brunk playing bully ball.