Salty ORU a step up for unchallenged Razorbacks

Desi Sills, Justin Smith and Khalen Robinson / Photo:

It’s hard to get a handle on just how good Eric Musselman’s second Arkansas Razorback basketball team is at this juncture of the season.

The Hogs are 6-0, but for the most part have not been challenged this season by a schedule that’s been crafted more out of necessity than desire because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The most challenging early-season non-conference games Arkansas was planning to play this season had to be scrapped because of the virus, although the Hogs’ showdown with Oklahoma State as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge tentatively remains on the schedule for late January.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Oral Roberts
When: 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20
Where: Fayetteville, Ark
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 6-0

Next four games

Dec. 22 – Abilene Christian (4 p.m. SEC Network)
Dec. 30 – at Auburn (6 p.m. ESPN2)
Jan. 2 – #16 Missouri (11 a.m. CBS)
Jan. 6 – at #10 Tennessee (6 p.m. ESPN2/U)

I write tentatively because as we’ve experienced, all schedules and plans are tentative in our Covid-19 infected world of the moment. While the vaccines are beginning to be administered to medical professionals and our elderly in nursing homes, experts say it will be this time next year before we will begin to find our new normal.

As a sports fan, I’m thankful we got through a college football season with as few hiccups as we had, and am hoping the basketball season will go similarly as smooth for the Hogs.

So, just how good is this Razorback basketball team?

For me the jury is still out.

The Hogs did get four votes in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, if that means anything?

I don’t think it does, but it does show a few AP voters have the Hogs on their minds.

For the most part, the Razorbacks have blown their competition away in their first six games. The closest games were a 15-point victory over North Texas and a 12-point win over Texas Arlington, but in both games the Razorbacks held larger advantages until Musselman went deep into his bench, and the play got a bit loosey-goosey.

The Razorbacks came out a little flat against Central Arkansas in their last game, but they had the Bears properly tamed before halftime and ran away with 100-75 victory.

My eyes tell me this is a talented, long basketball team with a diverse skill set that’s going to present challenges for opponents all season, but they have not yet faced a Power 5 opponent, a team that has upper-level SEC talent, or even a road contest, yet.

We’ve not seen this team truly stressed in any form or fashion so far, and for me that’s a bit worrisome going into the conference schedule in what stands to be a very competitive SEC this year.

In an ideal world, the Hogs would have played three or four more games at this juncture with a couple of games against Power 5 or perhaps Top 25 opponents, and a few of them on the road.

But this is a different year. Scheduling has been challenging for teams across the country, and the Hogs were fortunate enough to scramble to fill a hole when the Tulsa game had to be postponed with Southern. The Razorbacks blew that game open, winning, 79-44, but it was better to play any game than not in that situation.

Oral Roberts should provide the Razorbacks with a stiffer test than most of the teams they’ve played so far at 1 p.m. Sunday at Walton Arena in a game televised by the SEC Network.

Jalen Tate / Photo:

The Golden Eagles are 3-4 on the season, but they’ve played a salty schedule. They took a 91-64 pounding from No. 16 Missouri in their opener, lost a tough 85-80 decision to Wichita State, fell 83-78 at Oklahoma State, and lost 79-65 to Oklahoma Wednesday night.

The Razorbacks should be able to out-talent ORU, but their schedule has the Golden Eagles battle-tested.

While in a perfect world it would have been nice to see the Hogs face stiffer competition in a few games this season, establishing a winning attitude with a squad that hasn’t played a lot of ball together is one of the assets of the softer-than-normal Razorback schedule.

Winning is an attitude and a habit so there is something to be said for the Razorbacks rolling through their schedule thus far. A team that expects to win no matter the circumstances is better than one that expects the roof to cave in at some point.

It’s hard not to get excited about this team that Musselman has assembled. It’s the tallest and longest Razorback squad in recent memory. Stan Heath’s final Razorback team and John Pelphrey’s first Razorback squad had very good size, in 2006-07 and 2007-08, but I think this squad is more talented.

Reaching way back to the hey days of the Nolan Richardson era, the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Hogs had excellent height, but it’s silly and unfair to even think of comparing this squad to those national champion and the national runner-up squads from those seasons.

That was a different era with a different style of play, and those squads meshed so well together. All the great Razorbacks squads have, but that takes time and pressure this Hog team has yet to have or face this season.

I have no clue how good this Razorback team can be by the end of the SEC schedule, but when I look at its stat sheet, it points to the depth and talent that makes for a good basketball team.

Five players are scoring in double figures with Moses Moody thus far leading the way with a 16.0 average, followed by JD Notae at 13.3, Justin Smith at 12.3, Desi Sills at 11.7, and Jalen Tate at 10.5. Connor Vanover is at 9.8 ppg.

Any of those six players are capable of going for 20 or more points on a given night, and that’s the type of versatility a team needs to be consistent offensively.

An opponent can decide to neutralize a player and defend him so tight with multiple defenders to take him out of the game, but an opponent can’t do that at all five spots. The range of scorers the Hogs can put on the floor is impressive.

Vanover’s leading the team in rebounding, averaging 9 boards a game in 21 minutes of playing time, but Moody and Smith are adding a solid 5.7 and 5.5 rpg with Jaylin Williams collecting 4.8 a game in just 13 minutes on the floor a night. Tate is also adding 4 rebounds a game from his guard spot. That’s solid gang rebounding by the Hogs.

Right now the three players that stand out the most to me are Moody, Vanover, and Tate. Moody is so versatile as a 6-6 swing man. He just scores in the flow of the game. He’s one of those guys who always seems to have more points than you remember because his game is so fluid that scoring opportunities just come to him.

As former Razorback assistant and current Razorback radio color man Matt Zimmerman recently commented, Vanover wakes up every morning and gets out of bed standing 7-foot-3. You can’t coach that.

Vanover’s presence looms over the hardwood every time he is on the floor. His height makes almost every inside shot contested. His long arms allow him to collect rebounds that would be out of the range for any other Hog. Add a very silky touch from the 3-point line, and you have a player that’s highly impactful, who still has room to improve.

As for Tate, he is his own player without a doubt, but when I watch him, aspects of his game reminds a little bit of Lee Mayberry and also a little bit of Corey Beck. Anyone who remembers those Hogs knows that is extremely high praise.

Tate’s smooth like Lee with excellent hands, and he’s got some of that grit and toughness that Beck always brought to the floor. Plus, he’s a 6-6 point guard. That kind of height at the point is such an advantage in running an offense but even more so on defense with his long arms and active hands.

Now, it’s early, and as mentioned before these Hogs have not been challenged so far this season. SEC play is always a struggle, even for very good basketball teams.

We don’t know yet what kind of Razorback team we have this season, but SEC play is just 12 short days away. Then we will learn for sure.