Head Hog honing in on 6- to 7-man rotation after Auburn comeback

Second-year Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said he plans to use a six- to seven-man rotation as his Razorbacks move forward after their comeback victory over Auburn Wednesday night.

The Razorbacks (11-4, 3-4 SEC ) were in the throughs of a two-game, blow-out streak going into their 75-73 victory over Auburn.

Back-to-back losses to LSU, 92-76, and Alabama, 90-59, the previous week amounted to one of the worst weeks in UA basketball history.

In the first half against the Tigers, things continued to go south for the Hogs as they fell behind by 19 points with four minutes left in the first half.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Vanderbilt
When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23
Where: Nashville, TN
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 11-4

Next four games

Jan. 27 – Ole Miss (7:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 30 – at Oklahoma State (3 p.m. ESPN/2)
Feb. 2 – Mississippi State (8 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 6 – Texas A&M (5 p.m. SEC Network)

However, the Razorbacks rallied to cut Auburn’s lead to a dozen at the half, making the deficit manageable. An 18-4 run to open the second half gave the Razorbacks a lead, something they hadn’t enjoyed much over the last week and half.

Auburn made a run at the Hogs late in the game, but thanks to a block and a tough rebound by Moses Moody on defense and his game-clinching free throw seconds later, the Hogs got off the schneid.

Moody’s late-game trifecta of key plays had to sooth the talented freshman, who had a rough 2-of-9 shooting night and just 5 points. Despite his shooting struggles, Moody still grabbed 5 rebounds, dished 2 assists, and made 2 steals.

Moody also had a highlight-reel dunk, soaring in from the right for a monster on-handed jam in transition. The Dr. J-like move allowed him to take some of his frustration out on the rim.

While Moody’s effort sealed the win for the Hogs, it was junior Desi Sills’ never-say-die attitude that helped the Hogs regain their balance after absorbing Auburn’s early-game domination.

Sills, who had struggled in the Hogs’ previous four games, came off the bench to score a team-high 22 points for the Razorbacks by fearlessly taking the ball to rack and converting on drive after drive.

Jalen Tate, though strapped with foul trouble, was also key in the Hogs’ comeback with 14 points. He hit a couple of mid-range jumpers that loosened up Auburn’s defense in the Razorbacks key second-half run.

Grad-transfer Justin Smith made his presence known inside with 10 points and 5 boards on a sore ankle he injured in the Jan. 30 victory at Auburn.

Smith’s defense was also key in the paint as well as when Musselman called for a soft trap on Auburn’s star freshman guard Sharife Cooper. Cooper still scored 25 for the Tigers, but the defensive move forced the ball out of Cooper’s dangerous hands and was a key in sparking the Razorbacks’ comeback.

The defensive adjustment put a kink in Auburn’s offensive execution and played a big role in Arkansas securing the much-needed victory.

Musselman called the game a must-win for the Razorbacks, who opened conference play with an extremely difficult set of early games, including contests against arguably four of the best five teams in the SEC – Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, and Missouri. Florida would be the fifth team in that bunch.

There are no easy games in SEC play, but the Razorbacks’ next four aren’t as daunting as the aforementioned early season gauntlet.

The Hogs face Vanderbilt at noon Saturday in SEC Network-televised game before hosting Ole Miss on Wednesday. A non-conference contest at Oklahoma State is on tap on Jan. 30 and then a two-game home stand against Mississippi State on Feb. 2 and Texas A&M on Feb. 6.

That’s as favorable as Arkansas’ conference schedule gets.

Nothing can be taken for granted, but if the Hogs can top Vanderbilt in Nashville Saturday, they have three SEC home games in a row against manageable opponents.

The trip to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State is a tough one for a Razorback squad that’s still finding its way as a team.

While every game is big for the Hogs, a nonconference road win against a Big 12 opponent would no doubt help the Razorbacks’ Net rating and further their chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

The Hogs need to make hay while they can the next two weeks, because the back half of their SEC schedule is brutal with return contests against Missouri, LSU, and Alabama and Arkansas’ annual games with Kentucky and Florida. Playing at South Carolina on Senior Day won’t be a cakewalk, either.

In all, Arkansas has 12 regular-season games remaining. The Razorbacks need to win at least eight of them to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble going into the SEC Tournament at Nashville on March 10-14.

Whether that’s possible or not, we’ll just have to see.

It’s not necessarily a good sign that Musselman said he’s going to reduce his rotation to six or seven players in his Zoom teleconference Thursday, but if that’s what needs to be done to get the Hogs back on a winning trajectory, so be it.

The box score from second half of the Auburn game tells who those six or seven player are.

Sills and freshman forward Jaylin Williams — who had a break-out game with 7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal — played the entire second half. Moody played 19:17, Tate 14:46, Smith 14:43, and Davonte Davis 10:45.

That’s your six.

Though they started the game, JD Notae only played 29 seconds in the second half and Connor Vanover didn’t get off the bench. I’m assuming they will split that seventh-man spot based on the need of the moment.

Considering how Musselman deployed his talent last year, he seems fairly comfortable playing a short lineup. Maybe the move will galvanize his primary six so they will know their role and how it fits into the game plan better. Possibly if that group does well, more time can be spread to other players down the line or maybe not.

Either way, if the Hogs want to be a part of the Big Dance in March, they still have a lot of work to do over the next seven weeks.

Nothing is set in stone, but winning less than 75 percent of their remaining regular-season games would leave an NCAA appearance in serious doubt.