While the football Razorbacks are prepping in sunny Tampa, Fla. for their season finale against Penn State in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, Eric Musselman’s Arkansas basketball squad has the dubious task of visiting Starkville, Miss. at 8 p.m. Wednesday for its SEC opener against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Humphrey Coliseum.
The Razorbacks (10-2) have had an up-and-down ride during the non-conference portion of their schedule much like the Bulldogs (9-3) have had.
The Hogs’ best wins came in late November over Kansas State and Cincinnati, but during finals week, Oklahoma blew out the Razorbacks, 88-66, after opening the game with a 13-0 run. A week later a mediocre Hofstra team upended the Hogs, 89-81, at Little Rock, prompting a players-only meeting. Arkansas then roughed up Elon, 81-55, in their final game before taking a break for Christmas.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Mississippi State
When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29
Where: Starkville, MS
TV: SEC Network
Next 5 games
Jan. 4 – Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 8 – at Texas A&M, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 12 – Missouri, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 15 – at LSU, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 18 – South Carolina, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Musselman, who is dealing with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, said the opening of SEC play only intensifies the process for his basketball team.
“Now we go into conference play… it’s different,” Musselman said. “Games are close and competitive. Talent level becomes much more even across the board night in and night out. All of our guys have to play better. We have to continue to develop as a team.”
One development for the Hogs against Elon was the play of Texas A&M transfer Jaxon Robinson, who scored 14 points on 4 of 7 shooting and grabbed 3 rebounds in his first start for the Hogs.
Arkansas recruited Robinson heavily out of high school, but missed out on him when he opted to sign with the Aggies. However Musselman is happy to have him as a Hog now.
“Jaxon was a guy that when we didn’t get him the first go around, I was disappointed because I liked talking to him on the phone and really enjoyed his mom,” Musselman said. “He was on our campus a few days before he committed. When we went back in the transfer market and we saw him, we wanted him because of his upside.
“His best basketball is way ahead of him. He’s the youngest guy on our team, but he kept working and getting better in practice. We liked the development of his process because confidence becomes really important for a young player. His confidence wasn’t affected early on when he didn’t understand some things. His development has been awesome. Certainly Jaxon is playing with great confidence now, and we are happy with his progress for sure.”
Musselman said he and his staff are still evaluating all aspects of the team to come up with the best strategy going forward.
“We’re still a work in progress much like we were last year with our offensive sets and who we are going to go to,” Musselman said. “Everyone in college athletics right now is figuring things out on the fly.
“Certainly we feel we have a good body of work to evaluate everybody… We’ve been looking at everything to try to figure out what’s the best unit to put out there. We are looking at matchups in particular with Mississippi State to see what we have to do or try to do.”
Coach Ben Howland’s Bulldogs had similar struggles as the Hogs, losing 72-58 to Louisville in the Baha Mars Hoops Tournament in the Bahamas on Nov. 25, falling 81-76 to Minnesota on Dec. 5, and stumbling 66-63 to Colorado State on Dec. 11.
The Bulldogs, however, have won their last three games in a row and hope to make it four in a row in their home opener.
Howland said it’s important for Mississippi State to play well early in the conference schedule to set a solid course for the rest of the season.
“This is the critical part to our season every year,” Howland said. “It’s a whole new season. We are right there. We are 41 in the Net and 43 in KenPom [ratings]. We are right there if we can play well in the conference, we can put ourselves in position to play in postseason and to play in the NCAA Tournament, which is our goal every year.
“We’re in a good spot. Our guys had a good three-day break for Christmas, which was important. We actually practiced on Christmas night. That’s never a great practice after being off for three days, but I think it helped us to get back to work. We’ve had two-a-day practices and had a lot of up-and-down to get our conditioning back.
“I’m excited for us to start conference play. The whole key for us and everyone else in the conference is to try to stay healthy.”
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has most in college athletics worried about the havoc it could play on the season, including Howland.
“It’s tough,” the Bulldog coach said. “We saw it coming. The South with the exception of Florida hasn’t been hit like some of the other areas of the country, but eventually it’s going to get here. We’re hoping to have everyone get their booster shots. We’re trying to do our best, but there is only so much you can do in the current climate.
“Most of our team have their own apartment. I set that up a year ago so that we could quarantine and not have to share apartments. We’ll see. There are a lot of cancellations and a lot of teams across the country being affected.”
Howland has been impressed by what he has seen of Arkansas’ talent, particularly in the backcourt. J.D. Notae leads the Hogs and is second in the SEC in scoring with 18.0 ppg. behind Vanderbilt’s Scottie Pippen Jr. at 18.1 ppg. Howland also has been impressed by Devo Davis and Chris Lykes’ work in the backcourt.
“They are a really good team, very talented,” Howland said. “I love Notae, who is their starting point guard and was the sixth man of the year last year in the SEC. He’s a very good player, averaging 18 points a game. He’s streaky, but he played well against us.
“Davis, who started for them as a freshman last year through their Elite Eight run, is really a good player and is a potential pro down the road. They’ve added some good pieces as well from the transfer portal. No. 1 is Chris Lykes from Miami. He leads them in free throws. He’s about 5-9 but really gifted at getting to the rim. He’s really a good scorer and player.”
Au’Diese Toney has also impressed Howland with his work on the glass and inside. Toney leads the Hogs in rebounding with 6.2 rpg and adds 11.1 ppg.
“The transfer from Pitt, Toney, is a banger and good scorer,” Howland said “They still have Jaylin Williams and [Connor] Vanover back, who have a lot of experience up front. Williams is going to be a really good player, and Vanover presents problems with his size. He played well against us down there last year. He had 13 against us. They have good players and they are well coached.”
Musselman said he approaches preparation for opponents through matchups.
“It’s always a game of matchups,” Musselman said. “We’re trying to figure out the strengths of Mississippi State, and how we can take those away or eliminate them to the best of our ability. And on the flip side, how we can take advantage of a matchup as well.”
Musselman’s been impressed from what he has seen of the Bulldogs on tape.
“They are really well coached,” Musselman said. “Ben Howland does a really great job. They have a lot of strengths. [Iverson] Molinar is one of the best guards in the league. He’s very good at the pick and roll. He’s good in isolation situations and good in transition. Their off guard [Shakeel] Moore is a left-hander who can shoot the ball.
“[D.J.] Jefferies at the small forward is good in transition. He can make 3s. [Garrison] Brooks, a transfer from North Carolina, can play the 4 or 5 for them. He’s a real good pick-and-pop player. They do a good job of ducking in. Their big guys are really physical on the offensive glass. Even [Javian] Davis who comes off the bench have an impact when they come in the game.”
Musselman sees Mississippi State’s depth as a challenge.
They got a guy like [Cameron] Matthews who can play the power or the small forward who is very athletic and can jump in passing lanes,” Musselman said. “They are a really talented basketball team. They did as well as anyone in the transfer market. They got a lot of really competitive guys, and a coach that gets his team to play hard.”