Hoop Hogs hope for better exhibition outing against North Texas

The Arkansas Razorback basketball team closed out their regular season last year with an 11-1 run following a grueling set of practices that had players wearing weighted vests and playing defense while holding bricks in their hands.

Hog head coach Eric Musselman sent a message in those practices following blowout losses to LSU and Alabama that was heard loud and clear, and his squad never played as lackadaisically again the rest of the season.

Though the No. 16 Razorbacks won’t play their first game until Nov. 9 when Mercer visits Bud Walton Arena, Musselman has already pulled out the weight vests and bricks this season after his Hogs struggled to defeat East Central (Okla.) University, 77-74, last Sunday in their first exhibition contest.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. North Texas (exhibition)
When: 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: None

Next 5 games

Nov. 9 – Mercer 7 p.m. (SEC+)
Nov. 13 – Gardner-Webb TBA (SEC+)
Nov. 17 – Northern Iowa 7 p.m. (SEC+)
Nov. 22 – Kansas State in KC 8 p.m. (ESPN News)
Nov. 23 – Cincinnati or Illinois in KC TBA (ESPN News/ESPN 2)

The Razorbacks came back from a 14-point deficit with 12 minutes to play to pull off the victory. After reviewing the game tape, Musselman allowed that the Razorbacks played with effort, but their execution and attention to detail was lacking.

Musselman, who wore a crazy-clown Halloween mask for the first question of his media appearance Thursday (see video below), likes to have fun, but he expects better results when the Hogs face North Texas at 4 p.m. in their final exhibition game before the season opener.

“We’re passing out starting spots like Halloween candy because we aren’t even sure who is going to be available,” Musselman said partly in jest during the interview. “(North Texas) is really well coached. They play at a pace where they are disciplined. They have good shot selection. You’re talking about a team that wins, too. So you want to try to challenge your team and play against a different style play than maybe we’ve seen just among ourselves. It’s a really good game for us.”

The contest will be broadcast by the Arkansas Radio Network, but there is no telecast or streaming of the game.

With a portion of the concession and merchandise proceeds going to Covid relief efforts through the United Way of Northwest Arkansas, the Hogs were allowed to schedule a Division I team in the Mean Green, whom they are familiar with.

Coached by Seth Littrell since 2015, the Mean Green are a solid program that won Conference USA last season and pulled off an opening-round upset of Purdue in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Hogs struggled with North Texas for a half last season in an early regular-season game before pulling away for a 69-54 victory.

“Having the ability to play an exhibition game against another Division 1 team is good for college basketball,” Musselman said. “I think it will be good for North Texas and will be good for us.”

“I think this team is one that is going to grow from where we are. I don’t know how much from last Saturday, but after we play this Saturday, we’ll have roughly 10 or 11 days of work before we play again. We know we have to play better, and we know we have to get healthy.”

Transfers Trey Wade from Wichita State and Kamani Johnson from Arkansas-Little Rock will not play Saturday while nursing injuries.

“From a perception standpoint, we know that we are ranked 15th or 16th in the polls, but the reason to have exhibition games is to tinker with lineups, to tinker with schemes,” Musselman said. “It’s to have game tape where you are able to go back and evaluate to prepare you to play.”

Musselman said he’s more worried about the actual game against Mercer at the moment than the exhibition game with North Texas, but he did allow that the Hogs are breaking down tape on the Mean Green in preparation for Saturday’s exhibition, which his staff did not do for East Central last week.

Musselman said the Hogs are more concerned with learning how they can become a better team than being concerned for a certain opponent, while still in training camp. One part of that is amping up their assist game.

“We need all of our guards to be table-setters,” Musselman said. “We need to be a high-assist team. That means you are sharing the ball, getting good looks, that means less scoring off the bounce. We want our creativity off the dribble-drive to get open shots for other people whether it’s drop-off dunks or getting someone open for a 3-ball… Certainly, (we want) more assists than what we had in a 40-minute exhibition game. We’ve got to go there. We have guys to do that, and frankly we need those guys to be J.D. (Notae), Devo (Davis), and Chris Lykes.”

Notae made the SEC coaches first-team all-conference squad, while Davis was on the second team. Lykes, is a 5-7 multi-talented guard with point-guard skills but a scorer’s mentality. He is still adjusting to Arkansas’ system after transferring in from Miami.

“I think he’s at his best when he’s just kind of balling or just playing,” Musselman previously said about Lykes. “We’re going to need him to know the plays at the off guard and the point guard position. And we have a large play package, so that’s something that’ll continue to evolve for him. He’s not there right now understanding the third and fourth option at both those positions.”

JD Notae and Davonte Davis were voted to the preseason All-SEC first and second teams / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Musselman said Lykes has made strides in the last three weeks as he has gotten more used to Musselman’s stye of coaching.

“We practice at a pace that a lot of people aren’t used to,” Musselman said. “There’s not a lot of teaching that goes on in our practice. There IS a lot of teaching that goes on prior to practice, after practice, but I don’t like to bog practice down by hearing a lot of coaches voices instructing. I like that to be done individually. I think, maybe, the pace of practice was more than what Chris was used to. I thought Chris was a good practice player earlier, but he has jumped up in the last three weeks to becoming one of our better practice players.”

Musselman’s going to be looking for better execution of the game plan from the center spot against the Mean Green. Musselman allowed that Jaylin Williams and Connor Vanover played hard against East Central but said they neglected their defensive obligation of “hard showing” in the Hogs’ pick-and-roll defense, which wasted the effort of their teammates.

That said Musselman credited Williams for making opportune plays in the Hogs’ comeback and for being the squad’s defensive anchor when he follows the game plan.

Musselman said every team is different, and he and the Hogs are still feeling their way as seven new players are integrating themselves into the program.

Surprisingly, Musselman said this squad is a better practice team than last year’s, but he said key performers like Jalen Tate, Justin Smith, and Moses Moody proved to be “gamers” who played better when the lights were on than in practice. Right now, his Hogs have performed better in practice than they did in portions of their first exhibition game.

When the game is tipped off Saturday, Musselman wants to see his Hogs take their practice to the game as legendary Razorback coach Nolan Richardson used to say.