Arkansas and Ole Miss are each riding two-game winning streaks going into Wednesday’s matchup in Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas edged Auburn 75-73 January 20th in Fayetteville and swamped Vanderbilt 92-71 in Nashville the following Saturday. The Rebels applied some heavy duty defense to Mississippi State in Starkville on January 19th, winning 64-46, followed by a 61-50 victory over Texas A&M in Oxford on January 23rd.
The Razorbacks top the SEC in scoring at 85 points per game while giving up 71. Ole Miss is 12th in points per game but Hogs head coach Eric Musselman knows his guys will face a stiff challenge from an Ole Miss defense that is giving up just 62 points per contest.
“They control tempo,” Musselman said of the Rebs’ low scoring games so far his season. “They pride themselves on the defensive side of the floor. If you have low-scoring games defensively, it’s probably semi low-scoring on offense, too. So you know, they’re going to mix up their defenses, we know that. “
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis is quick to point out that defense isn’t the only thing he emphasizes but it’s the right thing for his team to hang its hat on right now.
“We’re working at it every day trying to tinker with offense and get cheap baskets in transition,” Davis explained. “But our guys are starting to believe in our defense and that sometimes we’re going to have to win games maybe with low scores. It’s not us not trying to score. It’s just kind of who we are at this point.”
Musselman is well known for crafting specific game plans for each opponent but after making some effective offensive changes for the Vanderbilt game, he suggested that alterations for Ole Miss will be kept at a minimum.
“We added quite a bit of stuff prior to the Vanderbilt game as far as moving without the ball and felt like maybe they focused on the ball a little bit and maybe some back-door cuts against any denials would work,” Musselman recalled. “But we did spend most of the morning with some alterations or some slight variations to that offense as well. When the ball gets in certain spots on the floor they fall back into a 2-3 or potentially in man. And they do that after some made baskets. But at the end of the day you’re going to have to go out and play and make plays and not turn the ball over and get high-quality shots.”
Davis added his own thoughts on how his team hopes to slow Arkansas down, telling reporters, “Number one you got to get back defensively. They’ve got a lot of multiple ball handlers that can advance the ball up the floor. They’re very skilled. They can go really small. They can stretch you out.”
“Our man to man defense needs to be good,” Davis continued, “with our zones mixed in. We have to be active and get hands on the basketball. Have deflections. But they’re a hard team to guard with any defense because of their skill level.”
Whatever Arkansas does to attack Ole Miss’ defense Musselman admits it will be hard to top what his guys did against Vandy.
“I think any time we get over 200 passes, we feel good, we feel like the ball’s got eyes, the ball’s being shared,” Musselman said of that game. “Anything under 200, we have to go back on the film and review why and where did the ball get sticky. But I thought for the most part, every single guy–And what happens sometimes is when you start sharing it and guys start making shots, the ball seems to find more hands.”
But the head Hog is also aware that his players will face a stiffer challenge Wednesday night.
“Ole Miss is confident,’ Musselman emphasized. “They’re really well coached. Have an experienced backcourt. (6′-8″ grad transfer) Melo White’s got a ton of experience playing in the Pac 12 at Arizona State and is a physical player inside. (K.J.) Buffen is a really good player. I like their team. They have really good pieces. They pride themselves on defense and some of the little things like getting loose balls and long rebounds are gonna be really important as well.”
Slowing Arkansas offense isn’t the only issue Ole Miss will be dealing with. Even though the Hogs are giving up 10 points more per game than the Rebels, Davis is worried about the Razorbacks defense which is number two in the SEC in steals behind Alabama.
“Live ball turnovers are critical when you play Arkansas,” Davis asserted. “They’re very fast. Defense goes right to offense. They can score in bunches. Especially at home.”
But the Hogs will have to do more than just force turnovers to defend against Ole Miss’ offense. They will need to adjust to a pace of play that varies according to the situation on the floor.
“They’ll run a little bit more than maybe what you think,” Musselman explained. “You’re look at their scorers, I mean Shuler is really effective in transition. We don’t want to give up numbers to them. Certainly pace of play is a factor for us. We’re not going to all of a sudden implement a new press. But we do have two different presses that we use at times to either slow somebody down or to speed it up. So I think the biggest thing is we don’t want (Devonte) Shuler and (Jarkel) Joiner to get easy looks by over-extending our defense too much.”
“We’re tying to get cheap baskets offensively,” Davis concurred. “So we’re going to try to play fast in transition but we’ve got to play at both ends of the clock. We have to play early and then play from 20 to 30.” (on the shot clock)
“They have two really, really good guards,” Musselman added. “Shuler can really score the ball and is an experienced player. Joiner’s a transfer from Bakersfield who can really shoot mid-range pull-ups off the bounce, jump shots. And then Ramelo White inside is very, very good around the rim, a post-up player and offensive rebounder. Then Buffen can beat people off the dribble and score around the rim.”
Arkansas will counter with two really good guards of its own. Freshman Moses Moody is seventh in the SEC in scoring at 17 points per game and is coming off a 26 points performance against Vanderbilt. Point guard Jalen Tate added 25 in the Vandy game and had his best game of the season at directing the Hogs’ offense.
“When he gets into the teeth of the defense he’s got a good floater,” Musselman said of Tate. “He’s got a good midrange game, much like Jimmy Whitt did. Tate has the ability maybe to use the dribble a little bit more into his midrange shots and start off at a pick-and-roll set and kind of get his way into his midrange game. But he’s also a reliable three-point shooter, as well. I think that opens up some of the stuff for he and his teammates. And drawing the toughest defensive assignment every night makes him really valuable.”
Game time for Arkansas-Ole Miss is 7:30 PM on the SEC Network.