Hogs impressive against very weak opening opponent

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Fool’s gold.

It’s what former Arkansas Razorback basketball coach Nolan Richardson would often call the open, long-range shots his match-up zone defense would give up early in a game to get a contest rolling at the pace he and his Hogs preferred.

Shots would be open early to up the frenetic pace he wanted before the Razorbacks turned the screws up on defense.

The open shots that were there before would no longer be open later in the game, but with the pace set, opponents would often remain undisciplined, playing at a rate they were uncomfortable, but at one that Richardson’s Hogs thrived.

The ploy led to a lot of blowouts when Richardson had the Hogs rolling from 1989-95 when talent was abundant and his program was at its apex.

The physical, hands-on play that officials tolerated at the time, also played into the Razorbacks advantage. Most coaches instructed players not to use their hands on defense, but Richardson demanded his Hogs not only use them to deflect passes and swipe steals, but also to hand check. The refs couldn’t call it all the time.

I can distinctly hear in my head Richardson yelling, “hands, hands, hands,” when remembering his fast-paced and physical practices, which were so competitive and almost as entertaining to watch as an actual game. His defense thrived on deflections that his athletes often turned in to layups and rim-rattling dunks.

As the Razorbacks’ overall talent ebbed and coaching in the SEC improved in the latter years of Richardson’s tenure at Arkansas, his tactics didn’t work as well.

While the SEC has always had a proud basketball history, it took Arkansas challenging Kentucky for basketball supremacy in its early years in the league for the SEC truly to see how lucrative basketball could be for all programs. Arkansas pushing Kentucky in those years only made the SEC grow stronger to keep pace.

The Hogs’ success even forced Kentucky to get better. Rick Pitino’s best Kentucky teams came after Richardson’s Razorbacks amped up the volume in the league. Tubby Smith didn’t elevate the Wildcats’ play but he did maintain it for a time. John Calipari came in 2009 after Billy Gillispie flamed out at UK in just two seasons, and Coach Cal began to work the NBA’s one-and-done rule to his benefit even better than he had at Memphis.

So why the trip down memory lane?

I’m not exactly sure. Maybe because I enjoy reminiscing about the Razorbacks’ basketball dominance during their final years in the Southwest Conference and their early years in the SEC.

Or maybe, it’s seeing how Arkansas’ latest coach Eric Musselman turned the Razorbacks’ roster over so quickly, using the rules of the day to his advantage. It seems Musselman and his staff have worked the transfer portal and the graduate-transfer rule to the program’s betterment in just a single season on the hill.

I’ve never needed a roster to watch Razorback basketball before this season. However, there are so many new faces on the floor this year that I found myself missing some of the action Wednesday night in Arkansas’ season opener to check my roster to see who was doing what.

The Razorbacks absolutely routed a very bad Mississippi Valley State squad, 142-62. The Delta Devils were so outmatched by the Musselman’s new-look Razorbacks, who have only two returning contributors from last year’s squad in 6-1 junior guard Desi Sills and 6-8 junior forward Ethan Henderson, that it’s hard to know what if anything we learned about 2020-21 Razorbacks in the game.

The victory nearly reached historical landmarks set by Richardson’s 1989 and 1991 squads that featured all-time leading scorer Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller.

The 142 points were the second-most points ever scored by the Razorbacks in history. The Hogs’ 82 second-half points were also the second-most scored by Arkansas in a half. Both records for most points came versus U.S. International in a 166-101 victory on Dec. 9, 1989. Arkansas scored 88 second-half points in that win.

The 80-point win is the second-largest margin of victory in school history. The record is 82 points in a 128-46 win over Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 4, 1991.

Arkansas drained 20-of-40 from 3-point range and was one trey shy of the school mark of 21. The Hogs set the record against Troy, downing 21-of-37 on Dec. 10, 1996.

Connor Vanover didn’t start but the 7-3 sophomore from Little Rock, who transferred back home in from California last year, led the Hogs with 23 points in his Arkansas debut. He nailed 4 of 5 3-pointers, gathered 8 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in 18 minutes. Vance Jackson Jr., a graduate transfer from New Mexico, added 15 points, hitting all three of his 3s and added 7 rebounds.

The scoring parade continued with Sills adding 19, freshman Moses Moody 16, freshman Khalen Robinson 15, Indiana graduate-transfer Justin Smith 13, junior Jacksonville transfer J.D. Notate 13. Freshman Jaylin Williams from Fort Smith added 9 points and led the Hogs in rebounding with 10 boards.

I’m not sure we’ll really know what type of basketball team the Razorbacks are until we’re a number of games deep into SEC play because of the damage Covid-19 concerns have done to the Hogs’ pre-conference basketball schedule.

The Razorbacks’ non-conference schedule is light this season — maybe purposefully so because of so many new players — with a date at Tulsa on Dec. 8 and home game with Oral Roberts on Dec. 20 as the only stand-out games, if you want to call them that.

The coronavirus is limiting travel on basketball teams across the nation and obviously that has affected scheduling. The surge in the virus has already forced programs like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Stanford to cancel games and go on pause this season.

It wouldn’t be a surprise for the hardwood Hogs to have postponed or canceled games in the nonconference or conference schedule this year.

While I struggle with calling it a positive, Musselman has said that so many of the Razorbacks have already had the virus that game cancelations likely will not be an issue on Arkansas’ end, but who knows with their opponents?

Even knowing that Missouri Valley State was one of the worst if not the worst teams in the NCAA, it was hard not for that blowout to make a positive impression.

This Razorback team is one of the longest and tallest squads the Hogs have put on the floor in recent memory. Obviously Vanover’s height tips that scale heavily, but Arkansas has nine other players on the roster 6-7 or taller. You have to go back to 1993-1996 to find a Razorback squad with that much length.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing this team to those squads in any way but height, but to battle traditionally tall teams like Kentucky, LSU, and the like, it’s nice for the Hogs to have quite a bit of size on their roster this year.

I like this team’s ability to shoot, and while it’s too early to tell, this squad has the length and quickness to be very dangerous on defense.

However, Arkansas fans should take this season-opening blowout with a grain of salt. It might have even been a little fool’s gold. Mississippi Valley State was an awful team. As fans, we should not build expectations for this Razorback team in our imaginations from the outcome of that game. Any SEC squad would have blown MVS out.

The Razorbacks are back in action at 5 p.m. Saturday against North Texas in Bud Walton Arena. The game will be streamed on the SEC Network Plus and ESPN 3.