Big tests upcoming for undefeated Razorbacks

Junior guard Desi Sills led the Razorbacks in scoring with 23 points at Auburn. / Photo: Arkansas Razorback Men’s Basketball

Through the first eight games of the Razorback basketball season, I remained cautious about the Hogs.

Eric Musselman’s second Arkansas team looked tough and versatile in jumping out to an undefeated start, but all the games were played at home and against mid-major squads.

The Razorbacks started slow against Oral Roberts and held off a late run by Abilene Christian, but they had never really been challenged this season, winning each of their games by double digits.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Missouri
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 2
Where: Fayetteville
Current Record: 9-0

Next four games

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)
Jan. 16 – at Alabama (2:30 p.m. SEC Network)

Despite playing relatively well night-in and night-out, the question nagged how would this Razorback squad, composed of graduate transfers, freshmen, a couple of traditional transfers and two holdovers from Musselman’s first Hog squad, do when tested on the road by SEC talent?

The answer was just fine, based on the Razorbacks’ SEC opening game Wednesday at Auburn.

The Hogs controlled the game from tipoff to the final buzzer, falling behind just once, in what had to be a confidence-building 97-85 victory.

“It’s just one game, but it is a road game,” Musselman said. “It is conference play.

“A lot of people talked about this is our first challenge. How would we respond? I thought we did a phenomenal job as a team.”

Not only did the Razorbacks post a double-digit road victory, they did it with a senior starter confined to the bench with an injury and another strapped with foul problems at crunch time.

Senior forward Justin Smith played just under 12 minutes in the first half before before hurting his ankle after grabbing a rebound, and senior guard Jalen Tate alternated in and out of the game in the final seven minutes of the game after picking up his fourth foul.

To their credit, the Razorbacks didn’t miss a beat with freshman Devo Davis stepping up at guard and senior Vance Jackson, freshman Jaylin Williams, and junior Ethan Henderson filling in at forward.

None of those four were the star of the game, although Davis did make two key steals and pick up four points in his 13 minutes on the floor, but as a group they gave Arkansas stability off the bench when they were called upon. To me it showed the Hogs’ strength and depth as each player filled a role when needed.

Junior guard Desi Sills led the Razorbacks in scoring with a 23-point night that featured the Jonesboro native knocking down 4 of 7 from the 3-point line, and driving inside to draw fouls and finish at the rim.

Junior J.D. Notae came off the bench to add 21 points, making 6 of 12 three-pointers and 7 of 9 free throws, while clamping down on defense to make four steals.

Freshman Moses Moody didn’t have his best night shooting from the floor, making only 4 of 11 shots, but he cashed in at the free-throw line on all six attempts to score 16. He also tied Sills with a team-high 6 rebounds. Conner Vanover scored 17 points and Tate added 12 for five Razorbacks in double figures.

The Hogs shot a fine 49.2 percent from the field on the road, canning 32.1 percent of their three-point attempts. The Razorbacks tied the Tigers on the glass with 34 rebounds apiece, with their top rebounder Smith on the bench for two-thirds of the game.

The Hogs hounded Auburn into 19 turnovers, while suffering just 10. That was probably the key to the game with the Tigers also shooting well from the field at 51.9 percent and 51.7 percent from three-point range.

The Razorbacks, however, maintained control of the game, playing their best ball when Auburn would get close. The Tigers tied the game around the 7 minute mark, but the Hogs took back control and won the road contest going away.

The victory was huge for a number of reasons. First, it’s a road win, and those have been notoriously hard for the Hogs to earn dating back to the latter years of the Nolan Richardson era.

It’s alway good to have a positive outing in the first conference game, but doubly good if it is on the road.

Musselman again pointed to the importance of the Auburn victory Thursday in his Zoom teleconference to preview Saturday’s game with No. 12 Missouri at 11 a.m. on CBS. That game is followed by a trip to Knoxville to face No. 8 Tennessee on Jan. 6.

“Since I’ve been at Arkansas, for a regular-season game, I thought this was by far the most important game that I have been a part of with this team,” Musselman said on his Zoom post game press conference Wednesday night. “Knowing [Tennessee] is in the top 10 and [Missouri] is just outside the top 10.

“So for this early in the year, it’s about as must-win as you could be staring at who’s on the schedule.”

The Vols whipped Missouri, 73-53, at Columbia, Mo., Wednesday, so the Tigers (6-1, 0-1 SEC) will be licking their chops to get a piece of the Razorbacks’ hide on Saturday.

With the Hogs sitting at 9-0 for the first time since their national championship season in 1993-94, Walton Arena would be bursting at the seams with fans and anticipation if Covid-19 protocols were not limiting attendance to UA games.

The 1993-94 Razorbacks reached 10-0 before losing a 66-64 squeaker at Alabama. At the moment, that’s where we will end the comparison to Arkansas’ lone national title basketball squad. Making further comparisons to that season would only be unfair to Musselman’s very promising 2020-21 squad.

It’s too early to tell how far this Razorback team could go in the NCAA Tournament or if this squad will even make the NCAA Tournament this season, but 9-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC is a fine start for a group of Hogs who for the most part just met each other in June.