Evolving Hogs face up-tempo test against UT-Arlington

What kind of face will the Arkansas Razorbacks wear tonight in their 8 p.m. contest with Texas-Arlington?

That’s the question I have going into the third game of Coach Eric Musselman’s second season as the Hogs’ head coach. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

His Hogs, which are almost an entirely new team from a season ago with the exception of junior guard Desi Sills and junior forward Ethan Henderson, are hard to get a handle on after two very different games.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. UT Arlington
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2
Where: Fayetteville, Ark
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 2-0

Next four games

Dec. 5 — Lipscomb
Dec. 8 — at Tulsa
Dec. 12— Central Arkansas
Dec. 20 — Oral Roberts

The Razorbacks blasted Mississippi Valley State in their opener 142-62 in a high-scoring affair that harkened back to the halcyon days of Nolan Richardson’s high octane squads. The Razorbacks showed what appeared to be a deep bench after Musselman primarily used around eight players last season.

In the Hogs’ 69-54 victory over North Texas, Musselman was back to using a tighter rotation in the game that was frankly dominated by the play of Connor Vanover even though the 7-3 sophomore scored just six points. The Little Rock native set the tone for the game on defense swatting 6 shots and altering so many others while almost nonchalantly pulling down 16 rebounds.

A 15-point victory is a nice win any night out, but the Hogs left a ton of points by the wayside against North Texas, shooting 41 percent from the field. The missed shots weren’t a bunch of ill-advised 3-pointers, either. More than a few were point-blank layups that should have gone down more easily. The Hogs also suffered 16 turnovers, which is too many in any game but they were particularly concerning in such a moderately paced ballgame.

Musselman pointed out he’d much rather see a missed shot than a turnover. With a missed shot, there’s at least a chance for a rebound. All a turnover does is put undue stress on the defense.

North Texas kept the pace of the game slow, working the shot clock, but had the Hogs connected on more shots the margin of victory would have been more swollen than it was. Musselman played just eight Razorbacks against North Texas as opposed to 16 against MVS.

We’ll just have to see what the head Hog’s game plan is for tonight against the Mavericks, who despite their 1-2 record, are probably the best team the Razorbacks have seen this season.

Arlington gave Oklahoma State all the Cowboys wanted before falling 75-68 in their opener, and also played well in a 76-72 loss at Louisiana Tech last Friday before defeating Northwestern State, 80-71, in Ruston, La.

The Mavericks don’t boast the length possessed by Arkansas, but they are not a small team, which should be some assistance to the Hogs as they work their way toward SEC play, which begins on Dec. 30 at Auburn.

Arlington is a high-pressure, mostly man-to-man squad defensively, and the Mavericks play at a mid- to up-tempo pace.

So far the Razorbacks have shown the versatility to get up and down the floor and to play at a more deliberate pace. Musselman admitted that he is using the Razorbacks’ pre-SEC schedule to tinker and explore styles and combinations with his squad whom he is still learning about during this early portion of the season. It’s going to be interesting to see if Musselman and the Hogs explore a different angle tonight against Arlington.

I had a sense for the type of player senior-transfer Justin Smith would be from watching him with Indiana against the Hogs in three games over the last two seasons, but Vanover and junior transfer J.D. Notae have been nice surprises. Through two games both are better than what I had anticipated.

Vanover is a very versatile big man, who is as comfortable on the perimeter knocking down treys as he is patrolling the paint. While he’s not the next coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, his length and shot altering and blocking ability was on clear display against North Texas.

Conversely, Vanover showed what he could do on the perimeter against MVS. He canned four of five 3-pointers, showing an uncommon ability to stress a defense from the perimeter for a 7-footer. It will be interesting to see how he fairs against SEC talent, but Vanover’s height and length along with an impressive basketball skill set makes him a very intriguing Razorback to watch. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 12 rebounds a game.

On the other end of the stick is Notae. As one of the smaller Hogs at 6-1, 195, Notae carries a big and explosive game with a great handle, a nose for the ball, and a soft touch. Notae is a quick-twitch athlete with silky smooth skills. He has scorer’s mentality, but he leads the Razorbacks in assists with 5 a game and is the second-leading rebounder, averaging 5.5 a game in his significant role off the bench.

Sills is currently pacing five Hogs that are scoring in double figures with a 16.5 ppg. average. He’s followed by Smith at 15.5 ppg., Vanover at 14.5, Notae 14.5, and Moses Moody at 13.5.

Sills was playing his best basketball of last season when the coronavirus closed college hoops down after the Razorbacks’ opening-round victory over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament. The Jonesboro native has picked up where he left off, providing leadership for his mostly new gang of teammates.

One of the most fun and rewarding aspects of following a college team as a columnist and a fan is watching the players develop and make strides as they progress through the program. It started last season, but Hog fans are seeing Sills mature as a player, teammate and leader before our very eyes.