Hogs roll into Christmas break undefeated

Moses Moody / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Just when it appeared the Arkansas Razorbacks might face a serious challenge on the hardwood against a solid Abilene Christian ball club, the Hogs posted one of their most impressive first halves of the season Tuesday at Bud Walton Arena.

The Razorbacks (8-0) blistered the nets in the first half, shooting 53.8 percent from the field and built a 22-point lead with 3:33 remaining in the first frame. That set up what would eventually become an 85-72 victory.

The Hogs’ defense was on point in the first half, holding the Wildcats to just 13 of 33 shooting from the field (39.4 percent) and just 1 of 11 from 3-point range (9.1 percent).

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 30
Where: Auburn, AL
Current Record: 8-0

Next four games

Jan. 2 – Missouri (11 a.m. CBS)
Jan. 6 – at Tennessee (6 p.m. ESPN2/U)
Jan. 9 – Georgia (2:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 13 – at LSU (8 p.m. ESPN2/U)

Abilene shot considerably better in the second half, hitting a scalding 57.1 percent from the field (16 of 28) and 36.4 percent from the three-point line (4 of 11), but the Hogs held too great of an advantage and played well enough to keep the game out of reach.

The Razorbacks did their work with head coach Eric Musselman watching from home because of a contact-tracing induced quarantine for the coronavirus. First-year associate head coach David Patrick admirably guided the Razorbacks to the victory.

While Musselman’s presence wasn’t felt on the bench, he did join the SEC Network broadcast crew of Tom Hart and former Razorback Jimmy Dykes via telephone for much of the first half.

Though I expect Musselman to have a long tenure as Arkansas’ head coach, if he ever does need a new career, color commentary would be right up his alley. There was a Hubie Brown-esque quality to his chat with Dykes and Hart that was entertaining and enlightening.

Musselman, who will be in quarantine for more than a week, might not have come off as charming had he called in during the second half, when the Razorbacks didn’t play quite as well as they did in the first half.

Arkansas’ shot selection wasn’t as wise in the second half, and their shooting percentage dipped to 36.4 percent, which evened out to a solid but not exceptional 44.1 percent for the game.

Freshman Moses Moody led three Razorbacks in double figures with a game-high 21 points along with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocked shots. JD Notae added 19 points, while Desi Sills scored 18 with 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 assists.

Justin Smith led the Hogs with 10 rebounds, while Jalen Tate gathered 7 boards and served up 5 assists to go with his 8 points.

Arkansas shot 80 percent from the free-throw line, cashing in on 24 of 30 free throws.

To their credit, the Wildcats (7-2) never folded their tents, and kept pushing the Razorbacks in the second half, but this Razorback crew — composed primarily of four freshmen, three graduate transfers, two second-year transfers, and two returning juniors — kept Abilene at bay, just as it has all comers this season.

While Oral Roberts gave the Hogs a first-half push last Sunday and led at halftime, the Hogs quickly erased the deficit in the second half and won going away, 87-76. That’s about as threatened as the Hogs have been this season.

Now the Razorbacks break for a few days for Christmas before returning to campus to begin preparing for the SEC season.

Though Arkansas hasn’t truly been tested yet, they will get a trial by fire early in their conference schedule. A trip to Auburn awaits on Dec. 30, followed by a home game against No. 14 Missouri (5-0) on Jan. 2 and a road contest at No. 8 Tennessee (4-0) on Jan. 6.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are 6-2, but haven’t lost since dropping back-to-back games against No. 1 Gonzaga, 90-67, and Central Florida, 73-65, in late November. Perhaps Auburn’s most impressive victory was a 74-71 nail-biter over Memphis in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event on Dec. 12.

While I do question just how good the Hogs are, it is impressive how well Musselman has what is virtually a brand new team playing.

After struggling through his first year as the Hogs’ head coach with a very small squad for a college team, Musselman recruited height and length to totally change the Razorbacks’ look this year.

While the Razorbacks might not exactly be the quickest unit to don the Cardinal and White, this isn’t a plodding basketball team, either. There is athleticism in the front and back court.

Though the Hogs are averaging 90 points a game, what I like most about Arkansas’ stats is that they are holding opponents to just 36.2 percent shooting from the field. They have also out rebounded opponents by 13.2 boards a game. Those are winning stats that will travel.

That said, we get back to the fact that Arkansas’ schedule has not been as challenging as Musselman might have liked because of Covid-19 precautions.

At this juncture, nothing can be done about that.

The Razorbacks will no doubt be tested in their first three SEC games. While the outlook for the Hogs is unclear at the moment, we’ll know exactly where they stand by the time they return home from Knoxville on Jan. 6.

A 1-3 SEC record going into the Jan. 9 game against Georgia at Bud Walton Arena, wouldn’t be bad all things considered.

Anything better than that, and we might be in for one whale of a season.