Hogs seek 2nd SEC victory against South Carolina

Arkansas Head Coach Eric Musselman gathers his team around him to discuss an upcoming inbound play during a game against Texas A&M on Jan. 16, 2024 in Fayetteville. (Photo by Richey Miller, CSM/via AP Images)

Coaches often give players a pep talk or a pre-game speech to get the juices flowing, but what happens when the coach needs a pick-me-up?

Arkansas fifth-year basketball coach Eric Musselman freely admitted that he relied upon some trusted friends from his coaching network to bounce ideas around after his Hogs dropped their first three Southeastern Conference games.

Musselman said the positive attitude of buddies like former Los Angeles Angels manager Phil Nevin, or the keen basketball insights of former Marquette, Indiana and Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean, Stetson assistant Brendan Suhr, who Musselman coached with for the Orlando Magic, and Johnny Jones, who brought Muss into college coaching at LSU as an assistant, were helpful just to get perspective on the situation.

“I think all of that helps,” Musselman said while reflecting on where his head space was prior to the Razorbacks’ 78-77 last-second victory over Texas A&M Tuesday.

Senior guard Tramon Mark dropped a tear-drop short jumper on the Aggies with 1.1 seconds to play to secure the victory and halt the losing streak.

“I don’t think the coach or player should ever lose confidence, but after getting a win after losing three games, it helps the overall vibe, and now you have to push that last win aside and get ready for South Carolina,” Musselman said. “I don’t think that we can have the turnarounds that we have had in the past here without having the belief and sticking to your principles, but also tweaking things. We did. We changed our starting lineup, and it was probably the best start that we’ve had in a long time to a game.”

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: South Carolina
When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 24 – at Ole Miss, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 27 – Kentucky, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 31 – at Missouri, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 3 – at LSU, 11 a.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. – Georgia, 5 p.m. (SEC Network)

The Razorbacks (10-7, 1-3 SEC) play host to South Carolina (14-3, 2-2) at noon Saturday in Bud Walton Arena. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Gamecocks, coached by Lamont Paris, lost, 74-69, to Georgia at home Wednesday. They should be stoked to face the Hogs in hopes of getting back on the winning track.

The Razorbacks should be fired up, too, but Musselman’s squad has been hard to read this season. Since Musselman liked the start against the Aggies, it seems logical that 6-5 guard Mark, 6-4 guard Devo Davis, 6-3 guard El Ellis, 6-10 forward Trevon Brazile, and 6-8 forward Chandler Lawson once again will get the call Saturday afternoon.

“For us it’s about preparation; understanding South Carolina’s record,” Musselman said. “The last game was good. If anything carries over or not, we’ll find that out at game time. It was certainly a step in the right direction on many fronts.

“We have to get ready for South Carolina. They have a really good backcourt. Meechie Johnson is playing as good as anybody, and [Ta’lon] Cooper, a transfer from Minnesota, is playing well, too. Myles Stute at the three spot. B.J. Mack. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to get ready for between now and Saturday.”

Johnson leads South Carolina in scoring with 17.3 points per game with Mack scoring at a 13.6 ppg., clip and gathering a team-leading 5.1 rebounds per game. Cooper is the Gamecocks’ leading assist man with 4.2 per game and 9. 1 ppg. Stute contributes 9.9 ppg., and 3.9 rebounds.

Musselman has been impressed with South Carolina’s focus and attention to detail. The Gamecocks are having a fine season after struggling a year ago.

Arkansas guard Tramon Mark celebrates following a shot against Texas A&M on Jan. 16, 2024 in Fayetteville. (Richey Miller/CSM via AP)

“They are connected,” Musselman said of the Gamecocks. “ …They play more together. Looks like there is an agenda with them this year, and that agenda is to win. Not so sure you felt that way last year, you know. It kind of happens.

“Their coaching staff has not done a good job, but a phenomenal job. Their culture looks very strong. Super impressed with their transfer additions. No. 55 Cooper, he can make threes. He’s got good size. He never turns the ball over. BJ Mack can pick and pop and rebound the ball. Myles Stute is known as a shooter, and he’s making shots. Super impressed with the way they are playing.

“Meechie Johnson is a returning player who is quite frankly playing as well as any guard in our league. I thought going into the year not enough people were talking about him. Well, everybody is talking about him now. He’s being extremely productive on the floor. He’s producing.”

When asked about Khalif Battle not playing on Tuesday, Musselman said the Razorbacks would be shortening the rotation as the squad goes forward, and indicated player minutes go up or down based on performance in games and practice as well as matchups within the game.

“It’s not about any one player,” Musselman said. “We can’t keep playing 11 or 12 guys. When we do that, the game is not in our favor. We’ve historically been a program that plays seven or eight guys. We’re trying to pare the rotation down. Who has a good game or who has a sub-par game, I’m not really sure.

“In this last game, Layden Blocker had played well at Florida and so had Joseph Pinion. You know there are only so many minutes to go around. Certainly we have a staff that evaluates practice, and the pieces have to fit together. Both sides in basketball are important. … Defense may be just a little bit more important here at Arkansas. It’s just a whole lot of factors with all of our guys.

“Keyon [Menifield] had some big games early. His minutes have fluctuated as well. Certainly going forward, the rotation will not expand. I think it’s expanded way too much. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a question is going to come when whoever doesn’t play on a certain night.”

Along with Mark, Ellis played standout ball in the victory over Texas A&M, scoring 15 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in his first start since December.

“I thought he played really well in certain aspects of the game the other night,” Musselman said of Ellis. The point guard position is one we’ve gone back and forth with, and we need consistent play there. Keyon played well. El has played some good games. Layden’s had some good games.

“El has handled [not playing as much lately] well. He was ready to play. There have been times where it has been a struggle for him as well… He got his opportunity the other night, and I thought he did a fabulous job by playing with energy, playing with a motor, pushing the ball. And defensively, we didn’t assign him to their two guards. He guarded a small forward a lot in that game, and I thought he did a good job.”