LITTLE ROCK — There’s always uncertainty coming into a new season and that becomes exponentially true when there’s a new coaching regime in place. In the case of the Arkansas Razorbacks, their early fortunes on the defensive end while jumping out to 2-0 under first-year head coach Eric Musselman has resonated with curious Hog fans.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, but the Razorbacks have put up some historically good defensive numbers for a storied Arkansas progam. We take a look at the D and a whole lot more in this 2019-20 first edition of Hog Food for Hog Thought …
* Arkansas looks great in 3D! After two games — a 91-43 thrashing of Rice and a 66-43 grinder over North Texas — the Razorbacks’s perimeter defense held both opponents to two makes each for a combined 4-of-42 (9.5%) from distance (Rice was 2-of-25 for 8% and North Texas was 2-of-17 for 11.8%). That’s good for the third-best 3-point defense in college basketball so far.
And those are not misleading or empty stats given that: a) Rice’s four leading returning scorers from a season ago were a combined 214 of 553 from 3 for 38.7%; and b) North Texas senior guard DJ Draper came into Tuesday night’s game against Arkansas averaging 10.5 points on 7-of-10 shooting from 3, only to be held without a field goal attempt before fouling out after playing only 12 minutes.
Factor in that collectively Arkansas held both teams to sub-35% overall field goal shooting and sub-15% 3-point shooting, and it’s the first time since 1997 that the Hogs have pulled off such a feat in back-to-back games.
What has made Arkansas so good on defense is closing hard with hands covering eyes while disrupting sight lines, jumping and reaching on close-outs on shooters, either walling off drives or funneling them to tough finishing angles, and timely help rotations in the paint and on the perimeter.
Theoretically, great field-goal defense will lead to great scoring defense, and so far that has been true in reality as Arkansas kept both opponents to 43 points while marking a few program firsts in many years. It was the first time since the 1949-50 season that Arkansas held its first two opponents below 45 points each, and it was the first time in 12 years (since November 2007) that Arkansas held back-to-back opponents below 50 points each. (All historical data provided by Hogstats.com).
* Who are the two Hoop Hog guards each averaging 20 or more points per game, Alex? The Daily Double answer, of course, is Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe. Again, very small sample size, but Jones (24.0 points per game for third in the SEC in scoring) and Joe (20.0 points per game good for sixth in the league) make up the only two SEC teammates averaging at least 20 points per game.
The last time Arkansas had two guards putting up volume-scoring numbers in the same season was two years ago (’17-18) when then-seniors Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford finished Top 10 in the SEC in scoring while leading the Hogs to a fourth-place finish in the league and an at-large NCAA tournament berth. Both Macon (media) and Barford (coaches) were named 1st Team All SEC.
For Jones, he’s also averaging 30.5 minutes, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.5 steals (eighth in the SEC) while shooting 57.7% from the field (including 38.5% from 3) and he tops the league in free-throw shooting with a perfect 13-of-13 from the line. Jones was named Monday as the SEC Player of the Week in recognition of his career-highs in points (32) and steals (5) in the Hogs’ 91-43 over Rice in the season-opener.
Joe is averaging 35.0 minutes, 4.5 assists (leads Arkansas and is sixth in the SEC), 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals while shooting 55.6% field goals — including 8-of-17 from 3 for 47.1% — and 2-of-2 free throws. Joe made the SEC All Freshman team a year ago after leading the league in the regular season in 3-pointers made and 3-point shooting percentage. His 113 made triples was the most in a single season in school history and it tied former Kentucky guard Jamal Murray for the most by a freshman in the SEC. So far, his 8 made 3’s are the second-most in the league and his efficiency once again ranks in the top tier.
Maybe the real leap for Joe will be his progress and effectiveness inside the 3-point arc. His 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%) on two-point baskets represents 46.7% of his overall makes (up from 23.6% a year ago), and his ability to facilitate off dribble-drives has been impressive in the early going.
Arkansas’s two leading returning scorers — Jones and Joe both averaged more than 13 points per game in ’18-19 — often were not on the same page a season ago in terms of both being efficient and productive in the same games, but so far so good as Musselman has cited the two have “great chemistry on the floor.”
* Never too soon for NCAAT at-large selection and seeding analytics: At 2-0, Arkansas finds itself ranging from No. 21 to No. 50 in at least five analytical team rating services, several of which factor into the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s formal consideration process when determining at-large bids and seeding in March.
The Hoop Hogs checked in Wednesday ranked / rated: No. 21 in RealTimeRPI, No. 29 in USA Today Sagarin, No. 31 in KenPom (includes No. 21 in adjusted offensive rating and No. 47 in adjusted defensive rating), No. 35 in Massey, and No. 50 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI).
When looking at Massey’s composite rankings — last updated on Sunday — it’s effectively an aggregate look at 17 of the various national rating services (includes KenPom, Sagarin, ESPN BPI, and the Associated Press human poll), and in that composite ranking Arkansas was No. 33 prior to beating North Texas on Tuesday.
Arkansas received 11 votes in the AP Top 25 poll released on Monday, which equates to a national No. 36 ranking.
* Trio of Hog starters have been consistent, productive, effective: Seniors Adrio Bailey and Jimmy Whitt, Jr., plus sophomore Desi Sills have been better than just solid, and perhaps nobody has brought the X-factor element better than Bailey.
The 6-6 forward and Clarence, La., native was Arkansas’s most consistent frontline performer in the preseason, and through two real games he’s been just as good if not better. Bailey is averaging 24.5 minutes, 8.0 points (fourth on the team), 7.0 rebounds (leads the team), 3.5 steals (leads the SEC), and 1.0 block per game while shooting 7-of-11 field goals for 63.6% from the field, including a 1-of-2 effort from 3 against North Texas.
Whitt’s boomerang career that began at Arkansas and journeyed through Dallas to SMU before returning to Arkansas was a recruiting win for Musselman in the early days of his tenure as Head Hog. Whitt (31.5 minutes per game) has proven to be a worthy Swiss army knife early in the season. In a big offensive outing when the team made 254 passes while racking up 19 assists and 91 points, Whitt was a distributor/facilitator as he handed out 5 assists to go with 2 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 block. In a slow-tempo, defensive game against North Texas, Whitt used his length and skill for three back-down-and-turnaround jumpers in and around the paint as he led the Hogs with 9 first-half points before finishing with 13 to go with 3 steals, 2 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 block.
Sills made his 10th consecutive start against North Texas — eight straight to finish out the ’18-19 season and the first two games in ’19-20 — and though he got off to a slow start offensively, he was a catalyst at both ends of the floor as the Hogs put the Mean Green down in the second half. Sills is averaging 31.5 minutes, 8.5 points (third on the team), 3.5 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per game. Sills finished ’17-18 shooting a blistering 60-plus-percent from 3 in his final eight games, and it seems to be a matter of time before he rights the ship on an 0-of-7 start to the season from distance. Once he finds his touch, he’s capable of being a consistent double-figure scorer for the Hogs.
* Rebounding, turnovers, and fouls: Through three preseason dress-rehearsals and two regular-season games, the Hogs have been up-and-down in these important phases of the game.
Arkansas dominated Rice on the boards (45-27), but North Texas turned the tables on the Hogs on Tuesday as the Mean Green won the glass war (37-24). What helped Arkansas overcome being minus-13 rebounding against UNT was limiting fouls and free throw opportunities (15 fouls on the Hogs that led to 7-of-12 free throw shooting by the Mean ) while converting its own charity-stripe opportunities (20-of-24 for 83.3% on 22 UNT fouls).
Additionally, Arkansas is plus-14 on the young season in the turnover department despite suffering 21 giveaways against Rice following a rough preseason of turning the ball over at an unwelcome clip. Against UNT the Hogs kept their turnovers down to 10 for the game and enjoyed a plus-6 advantage in the second half that aided their pull-away victory.
* Quick spin around the SEC: Early losses by No. 1 Kentucky (shocked by Evansville, 67-64, in Lexington on Tuesday), No. 15 Florida (against a good Florida State team), No. 23 LSU (on the road against a good Virginia Commonwealth team that narrowly espaped North Texas, 59-56, on Friday), and Alabama (unranked but projected preseason by some to receive an NCAAT at-large bid, home loss against Penn which turned around and lost by 19 at Rice) — ALL of it suggests there could be a good amount of parity in a solid SEC.
Arkansas was projected preseason by the media to finish 11th in the 14-team league, but a quick look back at the past couple of seasons suggests a low preseason pick is not necessarily a bad thing. In ’17-18, both Auburn and Tennessee were picked to finish in the bottom third of the league but ended up tying for the SEC regular-season championship. And in ’18-19, Ole Miss was picked dead last and South Carolina in the bottom half with each team finishing in the top half of the SEC as the Rebels earned an NCAAT at-large bid.
Arkansas was one of the two or three youngest teams in college basketball a year ago, but with only two new additions playing this season — both senior-grad transfers — the Hogs have the fewest eligible scholarship newcomers in the SEC. So, even with a new coach and system there is a cohesive, veteran quality that the Hogs may have relative to other league opponents. Obviously, lack of frontline size and depth could be — will be — factors along the way, but Arkansas at least is not meshing a lot of fresh faces like it did a year ago.