Hogs face a key week with trip to Oxford, home game with West Virginia

Trey Wade / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks take their four-game winning streak for a road test at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Ole Miss for a SEC Network-televised contest against the struggling Rebels.

Kermit Davis’ squad is 10-9 overall and 2-5 in SEC play, but almost since the Hogs joined the SEC, Ole Miss has been a thorn in Arkansas’ side, particularly in road games.

Old-time Razorback fans remember that it was the Rebels who tagged the defending national champion Razorbacks with a 76-71 upset at Tad Smith Coliseum to open SEC play during the 1994-95 season. So a Rebel uprising against the Hogs (14-5, 4-3 SEC) Wednesday isn’t out of the question despite Ole Miss’ struggles.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Ole Miss
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26
Where: Oxford, Mississippi
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 29 – West Virginia, 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Feb. 5 – at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 5 – Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 8 – Auburn, 6 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Feb. 12 – at Alabama, 11 a.m. (ESPN/2)

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman has been impressed by Davis’ players.

“[Daeshun] Ruffin is a dynamic freshman who’s got great speed,” Musselman said Monday while giving a rundown of the Rebels’ key players. “He changes the pace of the game and has great vision. Mathew Murrell from the off guard spot is shooting the ball at a high, high level from the 3. He can also put it on the deck. Both of those guys are a dynamic backcourt together.

“Then you’ve got [Luis] Rodriguez and [Tye] Fagan. Those guys play hard. You’ve got [Nysier] Brooks inside who provides offensive and defensive rebounding and blocking shots as well. [Jaemyn] Breakfield is a lefty who is multi-dimensional, you know, can play multiple positions. They are a team that changes up their defenses as well.”

That said Musselman likes the mix he has in the starting lineup, which features a guard and four forwards in JD Notae at guard, Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude, Trey Wade, and co-SEC Player of the Week Jaylin Williams in the Hogs’ big, but athletic starting lineup.

“The starting lineup has helped give us an identity,” Musselman said. “It’s unique. Often times a player’s natural position doesn’t mean it’s a natural mismatch. Au’Diese is a mismatch when he is at the four or the two. He’s got a natural mismatch on a nightly basis because he’s good as an off-guard rebounder in the league. You play him at the small forward, there are a lot guys his size in this league. I think the bigger lineup has worked well.”

Currently the Razorbacks bring a ton of quickness off the bench with sophomore Devo Davis and senior transfer Chris Lykes being the first Hogs to check in.

“Off the bench with any team, with any sport, you want a new energy and a new vibe,” Musselman said.”You would like the complexion of the game to change as well. As far as Chris is concerned, we want him to continue to play even faster than what he is. Sometimes he walks the ball up too much. On defense, we want him to pressure more, use his leverage and size more.”

Davis was a breakout player for the Hogs during the second half of the season last year when the squad went on a 12-game conference winning streak, and he became a fixture as a defensive stopper at the off-guard/small forward spots.

“Devo can change the complexion of the game with his offensive rebounding and defensive play,” Musselman said. “Last year he was such a great defender. We need him to get back to playing defense at the elite level that he is capable of playing, and then the transition scoring and all the other things that he can provide as well for us.”

The Hogs’ games with Ole Miss at 6 p.m. Wednesday and their Big 12/SEC Shootout contest with West Virginia at 1 p.m. Saturday may not be “marquee matchups” nationally, but they are vitally important games to keep the Razorbacks’ hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid alive.

The Razorbacks’ Net Ranking going into the Ole Miss game is No. 55. Currently SEC squads Mississippi State at No. 45, Florida at No. 44, Alabama at No. 22, Tennessee at No. 11, LSU at No. 10, Kentucky at No. 9 and Auburn at No. 5 are ahead of the Hogs. West Virginia is at No. 50, also.

There’s good news and bad news in those rankings. Each and every one of those teams are on Arkansas’ upcoming schedule. Tennessee is on there twice.

Nine of the Hogs’ final 12 regular-season opponents are ranked ahead of them in the Net Rankings. That creates a lot of opportunity to move up, but conversely, it features a lot of opportunities to absorb losses.

If the Hogs want to have a shot at the Big Dance, games like Wednesday’s at Ole Miss, Saturday’s against West Virginia, Feb 2’s at Georgia, and Feb. 15’s at Missouri almost become must-win situations.

While the Razorbacks have seemed to right the ship with their current four-game winning streak, they’ve yet to get into the meat of their schedule. The final 12-game stretch of the regular season will be a meat grinder.

Arkansas’ improvement after an 0-3 start in SEC play has corresponded with the emergence of Trey Wade, a senior transfer from Wichita State, as a starter. Wade is a “glue guy,” to use a cliched term. Legendary Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson would have called him “a fixer.” Things just seem to work better for the Hogs when he is on the court.

“Trey is one of our communicators and talkers in practice,” Musselman said. “We call it ‘buddy coaching.’ The other players really respect him. He’s an intangible player. He’s a guy that we’re not going to run offensive plays for. He knows his defensive assignments. He’s a great defensive block-out player. From a chemistry standpoint, the team not only likes playing with Trey, but they also really respect how unselfish he is both offensive and defensively.”

Wade’s play has gone up and down this season. He didn’t play a lot of minutes when the Hogs experienced their mid December through early January slide when Arkansas lost five of six games from Dec. 11 though Jan. 4

“Regardless of the sport, regardless of role, are you physically ready to play when your number is called,” Musselman asked? “Are you mentally ready to play when your number is called. Do you understand the game plan… [Wade] has been a guy in practice when no one is around but the players and coaches who has consistently improved.

“I think the team was ready for Trey to play a bigger role. He was going to do his job and not be a ball stopper. I think we’ve found a really good complementary player in Trey.”

One thing the Razorbacks have had going for them all season is their free-throw shooting. Arkansas is hitting free throws at a 74.3 percent clip and leads the country in free throws made, sinking 332 of 447 attempts. Only Iona has attempted more free throws than the Hogs with 456 attempts.

“We thought we were going to be a really good shooting team when we put together the numbers for the team,” Musselman said of his Hogs that shoot 45.2 percent from the field but just 29.2 percent from 3-point range. “That’s not the way it’s developed, although behind closed doors we shoot the ball as well as any team I’ve coached, but that has not translated to the games.

“Free-throws attempted has always been a big part of our philosophy. When you draw free throws attempted, No. 1 it can put the opponent in foul trouble. No. 2 it allows your defense to get set. You aren’t facing as high a volume of transition situations.”

Musselman said he takes free throws in mind when recruiting and building a team.

“To attract FTAs (free-throws attempted), you need players that can attack off the dribble, but also to play unselfish,” Musselman said. “When the help comes, make that extra pass.”

Musselman added that a team’s offensive execution plays a vital role in drawing trips to the free-thrown line.

“You need to be a good cutting team,” Musselman said. “We have several guys, led by Au’Diese, who are really good cutters who can draw fouls that way. Pick-and-roll plays, Chris draws a lot of fouls there or in the open floor. It’s a balance of all of that, but maybe above all of that is spacing. Then trying to figure out isolation situations where you have advantage/disadvantage situations where you can beat people off the dribble.”

Musselman said ironically that this Razorback squad isn’t one of his best free-throw shooting teams in practice.

“When we get in a game,” Musselman said, “we’ve done a good job (of shooting free throws) because we have the right people going to the line.”