Hogs host No. 1 Auburn for historic SEC showdown

When No. 1 Auburn and unranked Arkansas meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Walton Arena, a winning streak is going to end.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers (22-1, 10-0 SEC) bring a 19-game winning streak — the nation’s longest — when they visit the Basketball Palace of Mid-America. Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks (18-5, 7-3) boast a respectable eight-game winning streak of their own.

Something has to give.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Auburn
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville

Next 5 games

Feb. 12 – at Alabama, 11 a.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 15 – at Missouri, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 19 – Tennessee, TBA (ESPN/2)
Feb. 22 – at Florida, 6 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 26 – Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)

The enormity of the game isn’t something Musselman, the third-year Arkansas coach, wants to play down, but he does want his Hogs focused for the game and not on the circus surrounding it.

“It’s great for our fans,” Musselman said. “It’s a great opportunity for our players. But having said that you’ve got to have a semblance of stability. “Emotions can’t be up and down throughout the 40 minutes of the game [with the Razorback players]. We have to be steady in our approach. We can’t be distracted, leading up to the game. We have to be confident in our ability, but remember it’s a 40-minute game.”

Musselman said the Hogs respect the Tigers and all that they have accomplished this season.

“When you look at their roster, I don’t know if you get excited,” Musselman said about playing the Tigers. “You look at their talent and how much they’ve won. They are No. 1 for a reason. They’ve been beating teams because they are really, really good.”

Likewise Pearl has a healthy respect for Arkansas’ team led by J.D. Notae, the SEC’s co-leader in scoring at 18.7 ppg., do-it-all post Jaylin Williams, and the environment they play in.

“Bud Walton will be loud and energized,” Pearl said. ”Notae is one of the leaders in steals in our conference along with Jaylin Williams as a center. They are going to make a lot happen, get offense out of their defense and extend catches. They’re going to put ball pressure on you. They’ve got really good athletes. They’ve got really good size. They’ve got three guys (Stanley Umude, Trey Wade, and Au’Diese Toney) that are 6-6, 220 that play the 2, 3, and 4 that can guard anybody on our team one through five. So they are able to do some switching. They can put speed, quickness and size on you. They have a lot of different options.”

To gig his team a little, Pearl compared his Tigers and the Hogs’ recent games against struggling Georgia. Last Saturday, Auburn hit a late basket in the lane to secure a 74-72 victory over the Bulldogs in Athens, while last Wednesday, the Razorbacks plastered Georgia, 99-73, also in Athens.

“This is a team that beat Georgia by 26,” Pearl said. “We beat them by 2. Bud Walton will be on fire. We know we’ve got a great opportunity.”

Tickets are sold out, and Arkansas students have petitioned fellow ticket-holders to dress for a “white out” when they show up for tipoff of the game which will be televised by ESPN2.

The Razorback social media department has been working overtime for the game, which features the first time the Hogs have played host to a No. 1 team in the 28-year-old history of Bud Walton Arena.

On Monday, Arkansas issued a form letter from Musselman asking employers to excuse their employees from work early in order to make the game’s relatively early tipoff.

Memory Lane

While Arkansas played as the No. 1 team in Walton Arena for portions of the 1993-94 season and opened the 1994-95 season at No. 1, the Hogs haven’t hosted a No. 1 team for basketball since Jerry Tarkanian’s 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels defeated Nolan Richardson’s No. 2 Razorbacks, 112-105, at Barnhill Arena in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.

Barnhill was also the site of No. 1 Houston’s 74-65 victory over the No. 5 Razorbacks in 1983. That game featured a gaggle of future NBA talent with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon starring for Guy Lewis’ Cougars and Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson, and Joe Kleine suiting up for Eddie Sutton’s Hogs.

The 1984 Razorbacks did upend Dean Smith’s No. 1-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in Pine Bluff when Charles Balentine sank a baseline jumper for the lead and Michael Jordan’s would-be game-winner rimmed out for the Tar Heels just before the buzzer sounded.

Legendary former Marquette coach and NBC color commentator Al McGuire anticipated and called Jordan’s shot good while the ball was traveling toward the hoop, but it bounded off the rim, and the celebration ensued at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

While McGuire got a little ahead of himself, Hog fans shouldn’t hold it against him too much. After all, McGuire is the one who pinned the legendary monicker “The Triplets” on Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph, and Sidney Moncrief during the Razorbacks 1978 run to the Final Four.

Kleine punished North Carolina from the free-throw line, hitting 10 of 10 free throws. He also grabbed 10 rebounds and totaled 20 points. Robertson had the chore of guarding Jordan, who scored a tough 21, most of the game, but Robertson scored 9 points of his own and totaled 10 assists. Daryl Bedford came off the bench to score 12 points for his one shining moment as a Hog.

But’s that enough of a trip down memory lane. Tonight’s game is the topic at hand.

Work to do

While the Razorbacks have improved greatly on defense to spur their eight-game turnaround from a period when they lost five of six games, their work will be cut out for them against the Tigers.

“This is the No. 1-ranked team in the country for a reason,” Musselman said Monday in a Zoom teleconference. “They are an overly talented basketball team with size up front…We are going to have to play our ‘A’ game just to be in the game.”

Auburn is bursting with talent, led by freshman Jabari Smith. The 6-10 shooting guard is silky smooth, leading Auburn in scoring at 15.3 ppg. and 6.7 rebounds.

“He’s expected to be No. 1 in the [NBA] lottery,” Musselman said.

Walker Kessler is a 7-1, 245-pound athletic big man who averages 11.4 points and leads Auburn in rebounding with 7.9 a game.

“Kessler has such an impact with his rim protection and blocking shots,” Musselman said. “Offensively, he does such a good job rim-rolling. They get a lot of lobs for him in transition and pick-and-roll. We have to make sure that our pick-and-roll coverage is concerned with the ball and his roll and their skip passes.”

Smith and Kessler are just the start for a talented and deep Tiger squad. Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson average 13.5 and 12.9 ppg. respectively and are apt to have a big night any night. Allen Flanigan comes off the bench after recovering from an ACL injury and the influx of talent, but he’s a dangerous player as well.

Expect Auburn’s Jaylin Williams and Devan Cambridge to supply the Tigers with good minutes, and Zep Jasper, if he is healthy.

“We gotta cover a lot of different things,” Musselman said. “Green creates problems at the point guard position. Johnson presents problems at the off guard position. Preseason, Flanigan was an all-conference player. They present a ton of problems because of the talent level and size that this team has….Jasper and Green are having really good years and are playing well. They are both fearless guards.”

While Auburn plays a longer bench than the Razorbacks, Musselman is not worried about fatigue.

“I’m concerned zero with Arkansas’ stamina,” Musselman said of his squad, which is getting more quality minutes from backups Chris Lykes and Kamani Johnson of late. “I mentioned it the other day, against Mississippi State. We got stronger as the game went on.

“We’re not going to change our rotation based on how another team subs, but certainly Auburn’s depth is a concern. Williams was a great factor for them last year. I mentioned Flanigan and Cambridge. Those guys were playing starter minutes for them last year. When you go down their depth chart… there are a lot of really, really good players and great talent. So their depth is a concern. They have about is or seven guys who could have 20 points any night.”

Defensively, Auburn poses a challenge with their height and length.

“We understand and have a great respect for their rim protection,” Musselman said. “They’re going to do a great job with rim protection against us. That’s who they are… Certainly there are things we have to work on leading up to the game on how we approach shot blockers, but we have to be who we are as a team.”

Pearl has respect for the Razorbacks, too, particularly Williams.

“I think it’s their athleticism, their length, their size, their physical aggression, and their ability to stay in front of you that make them so good.” Pearl said. “And then Jaylin Williams is one of the best rebounders in the league, plays great defense, and he takes more charges than anybody else in the country. If you go in there and float, you’re going to be on the floor. That’s a really great play. It’s a better play than a blocked shot because it ends a possession. It’s a very, very effective way of protecting the rim.”

Arkansas’ improved play defensively hasn’t escaped Pearl’s attention.

”They are probably as big and athletic as any team in our league,” he said of the Hogs. “They have big physical guards. Right now, statistically, they are playing as well as defensively as anybody in the league.

“Stanley Umude, along with J.D. and Williams, their scoring has been really, really good for Arkansas, but the key to their eight-game winning streak has been their defense. They have been really holding teams down. They make it really difficult for you to run your offense. They work hard to stay in front of you. They do a great job in transition, and we’re 5 and 23 over there at Arkansas, but we’ve been competitive over there the last few times we’ve gone.”