Hogs staring down first of 2, 2-game road swings in SEC play

Arkansas freshman Davonte Davis / Photo: Arkansas Razorback Men’s Basketball

It’s a huge week for the Arkansas Razorbacks (10-2, 2-2 SEC) as they set out on their first of two, two-game SEC road trips this season.

The Hogs play at LSU (8-2, 3-1) at 6 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2 before heading to Tuscaloosa on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. tilt with league-leading Alabama (9-3, 4-0) that will air on the SEC Network.

Of course, the Crimson Tide have a date at Kentucky (4-6, 3-0) at 8 p.m. tonight on ESPN, which will decide the early front-runner in the league.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at LSU
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13
Where: Baton Rouge
Current Record: 10-2

Next four games

Jan. 16 – at Alabama (2:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 20 – Auburn (8 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 23 – at Vanderbilt (12 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 21 – Ole Miss (7:30 p.m. SEC Network)

Arkansas’ next two-game road swing will be at Kentucky and at Missouri on Feb. 9 and 13 respectively.

The Hogs have been struggling with injuries since Justin Smith went down with ankle injury in the Razorbacks’ 97-85 victory at Auburn to open SEC play on Dec. 30.

The grad transfer from Indiana will be out for another one to four weeks based on estimates after his surgery. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Monday that Smith had yet to work out since the injury, but that he could begin doing a few light things in practice as soon as yesterday.

Musselman also confirmed that freshman guard Khalen Robinson is lost for the year after having surgery on his foot, reducing the Hogs’ roster down to nine available players at the moment.

Musselman said as long as he has seven healthy bodies the Razorbacks are good rotation-wise, but Hog fans have to hope that the Razorbacks will get a break from all the injuries.

Junior J.D. Notate will take on more ball-handling responsibilities at the point during a portion of his playing and practice time to take up some of Robinson’s slack.

Abayomi “Baybe” Iyiola, a 6-9 junior transfer from Stetson who tore his ACL in summer workouts, is still two to three weeks away before being able to begin some practice.

The injuries have had the Hogs adjusting on the fly in early conference play. The Razorbacks seemed to have worked through some kinks that plagued them in a blow-out home loss to No. 17 Missouri and a close loss on the road at No. 10 Tennessee in their last outing.

The Hogs roughed up the Georgia Bulldogs, 99-69, last Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in a performance that Musselman called the most complete his Hogs have played in his two seasons with the Razorbacks.

Now, we see if that performance will travel outside the friendly confines of Walton Arena against a very talented LSU squad which is one of the most athletic and offensively explosive teams in the SEC.

Like the Razorbacks, Will Wade’s Tigers like to get up and down the floor, and according to Musselman they have four elite talents who know how to fill up the basket in Cameron Thomas (22.3 ppg.), Trendon Watford (17.8 ppg.), Javonte Smart (15.4 ppg.) and Darius Days (13.5 ppg.).

Musselman lamented that Wade had three players test the NBA waters last season, but they all came back, while his players Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones both made NBA rosters this season.

Joe started a game over the weekend for Philadelphia because of starters being out under Covid-19 protocols, and he scored 13 off the bench Monday for the 76ers in a 112-94 loss to Atlanta.

Musselman said the Tigers create stress on the defense because points can come from so many different directions.

It will be interesting to see if the Hogs can pick up Wednesday where they left off Saturday with Georgia. The Hogs shellshocked the Bulldogs with outstanding defensive work in the first half and only tightened the screws defensively as they flourished on the offensive end of the floor, led by freshman Moses Moody’s career high 25 points.

Moody continues to lead the Razorbacks in scoring as he had done the entire season with a 16.7 ppg. average. Notae is next at 15.5 ppg.

Though junior Desi Sills has struggled with his shot of late, he looked sharper against Auburn, and is averaging 11.8 ppg.

Point guard Jalen Tate has kept the Hogs running smoothly and is averaging 10.8 ppg., but has found himself in foul trouble a little too often this season.

Tate’s play is going to be critical against the very quick Tigers. The longer he can stay on the floor, the better for the Razorbacks. Tate is leading the Hogs in assists with a solid 4.8 a game. He has 30 more dimes than the next Razorback, Notae, with 28. Sills has 26 assists on the season and Moody 20.

It will be interesting to see how Musselman plans to deploy his inside players against LSU. Namely will 7-3 Hunter Vanover remain in the starting line up, or might Musselman move surging freshman Jaylin Williams into a starting role?

Vanover started both halves against Auburn, but only played a total of 3:17 as the pace of the game amped up. The 6-10 Williams, who is a charge-taking machine, played perhaps his best all-around game of the season against the Tigers, grabbing 9 rebounds, dishing 2 assists and playing strong defense.

Vanover’s height might bother the Tigers, but Williams is a more athletic defender. Either way, LSU should expect to see a large dose of both.

Another question mark is Vance Jackson Jr., who also had a strong showing against the Bulldogs with 15 points.

The 6-9, 238-pound forward reminds me of former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris. He has a physical build, but Jackson is actually more of a finesse player. The more effort Jackson can give the Hogs on defense and on the glass, the more playing time the graduate senior is going to get.

Going into this week, it’s easy to sit back and say the Hogs would be doing well with a split on this two-game road swing, and they would.

However, if the Razorbacks come somehow win both games this week, they would likely be right back in the middle of the hunt for the SEC title with more home games left to play than road trips.

Right now, the Hogs’ focus needs to solely be on LSU. Upset the Tigers at home, and Arkansas’ Net rating of 20 will probably move up, and the Razorbacks will be ahead of the game going into another tough road game at Alabama.