Game preview: Arkansas (16-5, 4-4 SEC) hosts No. 11 Auburn (19-2, 6-2 SEC) at Bud Walton Arena

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — For the second time in just over two weeks, the Arkansas Razorbacks will host a Top 15 nationally ranked SEC opponent when No. 11 Auburn invades Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a mid-week league game.

Arkansas (16-5, 4-4 SEC, NCAA NET No. 34) hosts Auburn (19-2, 6-2 SEC, NCAA NET No. 19) at 6 p.m. CT on Tuesday in a game being televised by SEC Network. 

Arkansas fell short, 73-66, when then-No. 15 Kentucky visited sold-out BWA on Jan. 18, but Auburn offers the Hogs a second chance at beating a ranked team at home with the allure of potentially adding another coveted Quad-1 win to their postseason resume. 

The Tigers are coming off a 75-66 home win over Kentucky on Saturday, while the Hogs are coming off an 82-78 road win over Alabama to end a 3-game SEC losing streak. However, Arkansas has lost its last two league home games (Kentucky and South Carolina, 79-77, last Wednesday) with a home win over TCU in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge on Jan. 25 wedged in between.

Including its win over Kentucky, Auburn has won four straight games after suffering back-to-back blowout league losses a few weeks ago. The Tigers started the season 15-0, which at the time made them one of only two undefeated teams in the country.

Auburn has won 3 of its last 5 games against Arkansas, including a dominant 79-56 home win after jumping out to a 22-1 lead nearly a year ago.

“Obviously you play a team that’s top 15 in the county, it’s always a great opportunity,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his Monday press conference. “Playing them at home is a great opportunity. Having said that, they’re ranked 11th for a reason because they’re really, really good. They’re really long. They’re really experienced. When you start looking at their roster, obviously they lost a lot last year off a great team, and Coach (Bruce) Pearl does a great job.”

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Scouting Auburn: Bruce Pearl took over Auburn when it was all but dead to rights and has built it into a top-shelf SEC program as evidenced by the Tigers’ league championship in 2017-18 followed by a run to the program’s first-ever Final four in ’18-19.

Auburn comes in tied for second place in the SEC. The Tigers are averaging 79.0 points per game (3rd in SEC), 41.2 rebounds (tops in SEC), 13.3 assists (7th in SEC), 6.4 steals (8th in SEC), 5.3 blocks (2nd in SEC), and 13.0 turnovers while shooting 43.9% field goals (9th in SEC), including 31.2% from 3 (9th in SEC), and 67.4% free throws (13th in SEC).

As Musselman noted, Auburn relies on a stable of veterans in its lineup. Senior 6-4 guard Samir Doughty is averaging 15.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals in 32.0 minutes per game while shooting 39.4% field goals, including 29.6 from 3, and 76.6% free throws. Senior 6-0 guard J’Von McCormick is averaging 10.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.0 steals in 30.2 minutes per game while shooting 38.9% field goals, including 28.4% from 3, and 55.1% free throws. 

Senior 6-11 center Austin Wiley averages 10.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 20.3 minutes per game while shooting 54.2% field goals and 70.8% free throws. Senior 6-7 forward Danjel Purifoy is averaging 9.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 27.5 minutes per game while shooting 40.4% field goals, including 31.8% from 3, and 80.5% free throws. Senior 6-7 forward Anfernee McLemore is averaging 7.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 20.1 minutes per game while shooting 50.0% field goals, including 35.4% from 3, and 65.9% free throws.

Highly regarded and strongly built 6-6 freshman forward Isaac Okoro is averaging 13.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.0 steals in 31.4 minutes per game while shooting 51.9% field goals, including 28.3% from 3, and 66.7% free throws. Wings / small forwards Devan Cambridge (6-6 freshman), Allen Flanigan (6-5 freshman from Little Rock Parkview), and Jamal Johnson (6-5 sophomore) average between 11-13 minutes per game and collectively they’re averaging 11.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.0 assist, and 1.0 steal per game.

Auburn is 4th nationally in free throw attempts and 15th in free throws made (378 of 561 in 21 games), 12th in offensive rebounding (13.5 per game), and 19th in blocked shots (5.3). 

“He’s (Pearl is) intense for an entire 40 minutes and his team kind of takes on his personality,” Musselman said. “But they’re old, too. I mean, they’ve got some guys that have experience on their roster. Then they have a freshman (Okoro) that’s just been incredible. Okoro’s done such a great job for them. Defensively, he’s a really good defender. He does a great job of getting to the basket off dribble drives. 

“Then they’re an awesome offensive-rebounding team as well. And they draw fouls. You look at the 44 free throws they took against Kentucky, that’s a pretty big number.”

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Muss, Hoop Hogs still in lineup limbo? Once upon a time, the Razorbacks had a consistent starting five of Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and Adrio Bailey, but due to injuries and various struggles during a three-game SEC losing streak head coach Eric Musselman shook up the first unit in recent games while trying to push the right personnel and matchup buttons with the final stretch of the regular season just ahead.

Although Whitt, the senior grad-transfer who returned to Arkansas after spending three seasons at SMU, has started all 21 games, no other Hog can make the same claim.

Star “point forward” Mason Jones missed the Northern Kentucky game in late November due to a shoulder injury, but aside from that hiccup he’s been arguably the best player in the SEC. He’s the league’s leading scorer at 19.8 points per game, and he’s the only player in the league that leads his team in that category as well as rebounds, assists, and steals. Back-to-back 30-point games last week earned Jones his league-best third SEC Player of the Week honor on Monday. 

“I think it’s awesome,” Musselman said of Jones’s emergence as a legitimate candidate for SEC Player of the Year. “He’s had such a great year. It really started this summer. When I think about him at 6 in morning getting shots up. The whole team didn’t get up and shoot at 6 in the morning. He was a guy that was very consistent in his approach and I think all his hard work is why he has had such a high jump from where he was last year. The versatility that he’s added to his game. Not just a spot-up shooter, but his ability to create off the dribble. His ability to be a point forward now. He plays point guard as the game kinda goes on each night. He starts off at the four and then morphs into our point guard. It’s awesome when a guy works hard and then his game elevates which is what’s happened with Mason.

“But he’s earned it. It’s not like we opened the season against Rice and said that Mason is going to be a point forward and we’re going to run a lot of middle pick-and-roll and wing pick-and-roll with him. He’s created his own role through us experimenting, as you always do as a new coach. Some experiments fail, and the Mason Jones with the ball in his hands experiment has not failed. It’s been successful. Most of it has to do with all the work he put in in the offseason.”

Preseason second-team All SEC pick Isaiah Joe was having an all-league season, too, before injuring his right knee during his 34-point explosion at Ole Miss that was the catalyst for a come-from-behind 76-72 road win on Jan. 11. In Arkansas’s next game against Vanderbilt, Joe was seen wearing a brace on his right knee and he’s been visibly limping and unable to move with his normal range and flexibility ever since. He missed the TCU game (a Hog win), returned for South Carolina and scored 16 points in a home loss, then went scoreless (on three shot attempts in 21 minutes) for the first time in his 54-game Arkansas career while also struggling to play defense on Saturday against ‘Bama.

“He’s going to be day-to-day probably for two to three weeks,” said Musselman, who acknowledged that Joe had received an MRI scan. “That’s what it’s going to be. He’ll be day-to-day, and if he’s able to play, whenever that is over the next two weeks, great. If he’s not able to play, we just need people to step up like they did against TCU. With our roster, whether it’s Reggie, Adrio, I mean, we need a full roster. We’re not a deep team. But, just as we saw on TCU when a player goes down or is not able to play then somebody else gets opportunities. We just got to go day-by-day and see where we stand and see what our roster looks like.

“I don’t want Mark O’Neil (Arkansas’s medical trainer) to give me out-of-bounds plays, don’t want him to give me defensive schemes on how to play Auburn, and I’m not going to tell him anything about medical. I don’t know anything about it. I know my back is sore right now and that’s all I know medically. I can’t comment or talk about any of our guys. If somebody has got a head cold, I don’t know what that does to a player’s energy. If a guy has got a bad ankle, I mean it’s just kind of up to Mark. When Desi (Sills) went down, I just say, ‘Is he ready or not?’”

With or without Joe, Musselman saw complementary support for Jones from the likes of Whitt, junior guard Jalen Harris, sophomore forward Reggie Chaney, and sophomore guard Desi Sills in the comeback win over Alabama on Saturday.

Whitt scored 26 points to go with 4 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 assists, and 1 block; Harris came off the bench to score 11 points, including 7 in the final stretch of the game that pushed the Hogs ahead for good; Chaney started and had 8 points and a career-high-matching 11 rebounds (5 offensive), and like Harris most of his production came in the second half when Arkansas scored 46 points; Sills started and played 39 minutes, finishing with 7 points, 3 steals, 2 assists, and 1 rebound.

“I thought his second-half rebounding is just what we needed,” Musselman said of Chaney, who began raising his level of play in the win over Vanderbilt six games ago. “I thought he rebounded in traffic. I thought he range rebounded. I thought there was some really, really good things he did on the glass. All conference play he has been really, really good finishing around the rim. It was probably his best defensive job when we have gone to our switching gameplan. He did a great job of walling up going vertical. Kept (‘Bama guard) Kira Lewis in front of him which I think is as hard a guy in league keeping in front of you. I thought he did a phenominal job defensively and on the defensive backboards.

“He’s a guy that gets shots up before practice. He’s had a really good attitude. I guess the thing I’ve been most impressed with is his attitude throughout the entire season. I’m sure there has been several games where he wished he would have played more and had more of a role. He hadn’t let it affect his attitude at all. He just comes in and works. We need him to play big for us for sure.”

Whatever personnel decisions shake out against the Tigers, the matchup between the league’s best (Auburn) and worst (Arkansas) rebounding teams likely means the Hogs need another significant advantage in turnover margin like they got against the Tide. Arkansas forced 17 ‘Bama turnovers (includes 11 steals) while only committing 10 giveaways, which resulted in a 27-13 win in points-off-turnovers and a 16-6 edge in fast-break points.

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Auburn, Arkansas goes back on the road for a Saturday matchup against Missouri in Columbia, Mo.

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