Game preview: No. 20 Arkansas hosts No. 6 Alabama in biggest tilt of Musselman/UA era

Pig Trail Nation

Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — Tonight’s Arkansas-Alabama matchup presents a lot of firsts for the Razorbacks men’s basketball program in years. First game between two ranked teams in men’s basketball at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in 23 years, opportunity for the first Hogs’ 8-game winning streak against SEC competition in nearly 26 years, opportunity for the Hogs’ first home win over a Top-10-ranked team in 5 years, first chance at revenge for the Hogs following the Tide’s 31-point home win when the two teams played in January, first league Nos. 1-vs.-2 matchup this late in February for the Hogs in 6 years, and first opportunity for Arkansas to pull within reasonable striking distance of winning an SEC regular-season championship this late in a season in the 21st century.

CBS Sports’ national college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein started his day on Wednesday by tweeting: “Game of the night in college basketball is at Bud Walton Arena as Arkansas hosts Alabama. Crimson Tide won by 31 in the first meeting. Big spot for the Razorbacks.”

For all of those reasons, and maybe more, when No. 20 Arkansas (17-5, 9-4 SEC, NCAA NET No. 25) and No. 6 ‘Bama (18-5, 13-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 8] tip up around 8 p.m. tonight on ESPN2 it will undoubtedly mark second-year head coach Eric Mussleman’s biggest game as Head Hog.

If Musselman — who at Arkansas is 1-0 when the Razorbacks are ranked, 1-5 vs. ranked teams, 17-15 against SEC teams, and 37-17 overall — can guide the Hogs to a win over the Crimson Tide, it would bring his second-place team to within two losses of league-leader ‘Bama with two more league games remaining on the regular-season schedule for all SEC teams. An Arkansas win, and assuming both teams play their next two games as scheduled, it’s conceivable Arkansas could draw even or finish only one game back of Alabama in the loss column. Technically, the Tide currently hold a 3.5-game lead over the Razorbacks due to having played (and won) an extra league game to this point as both teams have had postponements against Texas A&M (‘Bama once, Arkansas twice) due to covid-19 issues within the Aggies program.

Point is, win tonight and finish either tied or one game back of ‘Bama in the loss column once all scheduled games have been completed by this time next week, then Arkansas would have a valid expectation for the SEC to require both teams to make up games against A&M (this assumes the Aggies, who have had 8 straight league games postponed, will resume play in ’20-21) to determine the league champion while sorting out the Nos. 1 and 2 SEC tournament seeds. Two potential scenarios could look like this: 

1) If Arkansas is tied with Alabama in the loss column this time next week (which would put the ‘Hogs a half-game back in the win column in the league standings), the league could have Arkansas play its home game against Texas A&M on Thursday, March 4, and with a Hogs’ win the league could then have ‘Bama play at A&M either on Thursday or Friday (March 5 or 6), and win or lose let Arkansas play its road game against the Aggies either on Saturday or Sunday (March 6 or 7); OR if the Hogs lose their first game at home against the Aggies, ‘Bama could still play at A&M as described above with a Tide win eliminating the need for the second Arkansas-A&M game, but a Tide loss meaning the second Arkansas-A&M matchup being played as described above. Either way, this gives both teams an opportunity to win the league outright, or share the title with tiebreakers determining SECT seeding.

2)  If Arkansas is behind ‘Bama by one game in the loss column this time next week (which would put the ‘Hogs 1.5 games back in the league standings), the league could have Arkansas play its home game against Texas A&M on Thursday, March 4, and with a Hogs win have ‘Bama play at A&M on either Thursday or Friday (March 5 or 6), and with ‘Bama either a) losing, have Arkansas play its road game at A&M either on Saturday or Sunday (March 6 or 7); or b) winning, the Tide then lock up the title and No. 1 SECT seed and thus eliminating the need for the second Arkansas-A&M game to be played. Again, this gives both teams an opportunity to win the league outright, or share the title with tiebreakers determining SECT seeding.

Before going any deeper into the speculation weeds regarding SEC titles, SECT seeding pecking order, and makeup games, a win tonight would help both teams add another Quad-1 win to already-solid NCAA tournament resumes with a loss not doing significant damage to either team. Arkansas is 2-5 against the NET Top 50, 3-4 in Q1 games, 3-1 in Q2 games, and 11-0 in Q3 games.

From a historical perspective, the Hogs last hosted a home game between two ranked teams on Feb. 18, 1998, when No. 16 Arkansas defeated No. 13 South Carolina, 96-88, at BWA; the last 8-game winning streak for Arkansas against SEC teams came in the ’94-95 national championship runner-up season; the last time the Hogs defeated a Top-10-ranked team at home was on Jan. 27, 2016 — a 74-71 victory over No. 5 Texas A&M; the last time Arkansas was in a late-February 1-vs.-2 SEC matchup was at Kentucky on Feb. 28, 2015 (the Wildcats were undefeated and 4 games ahead of the second-place Hogs in the standings with only 3 games remaining, so the matchup had no impact on the SEC title); and the last time the Hogs were mathematically still in the hunt for an SEC title this late in February was in the final decade of the 20th century.

As if the Hogs needed more motivation than that, there’s always the revenge factor after the 90-59 debacle at the hands of the Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in January.

“I was a lot younger then, I don’t know,” Musselman answered when asked on Monday about the significance of Wednesday’s game being the first between two ranked men’s teams at BWA since 1998. “I’m just worried about this year and how do we win this game. Alabama’s had an outstanding year. When we played them the first time, their offense was like a Lamborghini and our offense was like a Prius. The elephant in the room from game one: 90, 18, and 15. They made 15 threes, they scored 90 points, and we had 18 turnovers.

“So we obviously have to play a lot better basketball than we did in Tuscaloosa. But think from being ranked two weeks in a row, moving up in the rankings, a stat about how long it’s been (since a matchup of ranked teams in BWA) kind of puts things in perspective for probably our staff a little bit as well as the players. It’s hard to get ranked and it’s two really good teams playing.” 

Under second-year head coach Nate Oats’ guidance, Alabama has one league loss — by two points at Mizzouri on Feb. 6, but the Tide have since won 3 games in a row. Two of those games were decided by 4 points or less, including an 81-78 Tide win over South Carolina on Feb. 9 that serves as the last time ‘Bama played a road game. 

‘Bama is backcourt rich with sophomore Jaden Shackleford (14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 32.0% from 3, 76% free throws); senior John Petty, Jr. (13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 38.4% from 3, 72.5% free throws); Villanova sophomore-transfer Jahvon Quinerly (11.7 points, 2.9 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 44.4% from 3, 72.7% free throws); and freshman Joshua Primo (8.6 points, 3.4 rebounds41.1% from 3, 74.4% free throws).

Versatile 6-8 senior combo forward Herbert Jones is the team’s leader and is a candidate for SEC Player of the Year, averaging 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 46.8% field goals, 52.6% from 3, 75.5% free throws. Yale senior-transfer and 6-10 forward/center Jordan Bruner (7.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 49.3% field goals, 30.8% from 3, 70.4% free throws) had missed the first game against the Hogs with a torn meniscus and did not return to ‘Bama lineup until Saturday when he had 1 point and 6 rebounds in the Tide’s 82-78 home win over Vanderbilt. Senior 6-9 forward Alex Reese (5.9 points, 3.1 rebounds) is streaky but gives the Tide another threat to score from distance.

As a team, the Tide leads the SEC in three-point shooting percentage (36.0%) and volume in both makes and takes (‘Bama’s 250 made three-pointer are 75 more than Arkansas’s 175, and ‘Bama’s 694 three-point attempts are 177 more than Arkansas’s 517). Arkansas is third in the league in three-point makes and attempts, but only seventh in three-point percentage (33.8%). Conversely, Arkansas has been better shooting inside the arc and at the free throw line compared to the Tide.

Alabama is third in the SEC in scoring at 80.9 points per game (the Hogs are second at 82.5) and second in rebounding at 40.3 boards per game (the Hogs are first at 40.4). Both teams are in the top 5 in the league in assists and steals, but only Arkansas is in the top 5 in blocks.

“Obviously, you look at Alabama and I think they’re as talented as any team in the country,” Musselman said. “They have three seniors, guys with great experience in Herb Jones and Petty and Reese. Their entire roster is really, really talented. And they had two players test the [NBA Draft] waters in Herb Jones and Petty, and both those guys came back and they kind of spearhead this thing for Alabama. It’d kind of be like us getting Mason (Jones) and Isaiah (Joe) back.”

Trying to find the right combinations with only one returning player with significant SEC experience, Arkansas struggled early in league play while competing without Indiana senior-graduate transfer and combo forward Justin Smith, who after missing 4 games following ankle surgery returned to start against ‘Bama in the teams’ first meeting. But Smith was clearly not at full strength, and though freshman shooting guard Moses Moody was a bright spot scoring a career-high 28 points in the game, the Razorbacks ran into a buzzsaw against a Tide squad that at the time was the hottest team in the league. T

That loss dropped the Hogs to 2-4 in the league at the time, but they haven’t dropped an SEC game since and now stand as the SEC’s hottest team sporting a 7-game league winning streak.

The afforementioned “elephant in the room in game one” that Musselman discussed — giving up 15 made three-pointers, 90 points, and 18 turnovers in the 31-point loss in Tuscaloosa — is not reflective of the current Arkansas team that in its last three home games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Florida limited those teams to an average of 56.0 points and a collective 10-of-56 shooting from 3 (17.9%). Granted, those are different matchups and none are as prolific shooting from distance as ‘Bama is, but none were nearly as bad coming into BWA as they looked against an Arkansas team that’s been playing its best defense of the season.

What’s also different about Arkansas is the top 7-8 rotation. Joining the big three of Smith, Moody, and senior combo guard Jalen Tate is a more-battled-tested and improved Connor Vanover, freshman combo guard Davonte “Devo” Davis breaking into the starting lineup and bringing winning impact at both ends of the court, and freshman big man Jaylin Williams finally getting the minutes and role that he was touted to be in line for in the preseason as he has become a rebounding force and emerging defensive plus. Junior guards Desi Sills and JD Notae continue to add value in the lineup.

If ‘Bama unlocks what worked the first go-round, the Hogs are in jeopardy of losing at BWA for only the second time this season. But if the Hogs correct the turnover bug that bit them at ‘Bama, stay close on the glass, and hold the Tide to either a low volume (not likely) and/or low percentage (possible) from three-point range, that’s the formula for Arkansas taking the next big step toward national relevance.

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