Hog Food for Hog Thought: Arkansas-Kentucky preview, Muss at the Mic, analytics, and more

Pig Trail Nation

LITTLE ROCK — They’re not the New York Yankees, but the effect the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats have on college basketball is certainly Bronx Bomber-esque when considering the “buzz” among fans and media that swells and intensifies as game-time against the ‘Cats draws near.

The Arkansas Razorbacks (14-2, 3-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 23) will host Big Blue (12-4, 3-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 38) at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday at sold-out Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville with iconic color analyst Dick Vitale in town as part of ESPN’s national coverage. It’s a game with high early-SEC-season stakes as both teams come in tied with Auburn and Florida for second place in the league and just a game behind defending league champion LSU.

The Hogs have lost their last seven games against the Wildcats going back to the 2013-14 season when Arkansas swept Kentucky in two overtime games — the first in Fayetteville on a soaring Michael Qualls’ putback dunk that beat the buzzer, and the second in Lexington, Ky., late in the regular-season.

An Arkansas win Saturday would snap that streak, give the Hogs’ their first win over a ranked team this season, and it would be the program’s best start through five league games in 22 years (the 1997-98 Razorbacks started 9-1 in SEC play).

“I just think … there’s just hype, you know,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said after a long pause during his Thursday press conference when asked about the heightened fan and media attention surrounding a home game against Kentucky. “I’m sure when the Yankees come to town in major league baseball there’s more outside noise. I think as a player you should be ready to play every night. I think if you bring great intensity evey night — like I’m not going to coach any different against Vanderbilt or against Kenutcky. You prepare the same way, then your level of play shouldn’t fluctuate like a yo-yo either. You should be ready to play every night as a player, and as a coaching staff you should have great preparation. We’ve got a game after the Kentucky game, too, that becomes important.

“Now the buzz when you walk into the building, certainly at LSU (where Musselman was an assistant coach during 2014-15 season) that was our best crowd. It was a great game … I remember the whole game vividly, I can tell you every possession … So yeah, I think when you walk in the building there’s a buzz. There’s going to be a buzz Saturday, I know it. I haven’t been at Arkansas when we’ve played Kentucky, but I know there’s going to be a buzz just as my phone every 10 seconds is going off with people asking for tickets. People I haven’t heard from in a long time … Our players are going to have more family members at the game, so there’s all that. But I think from a mental standpoint, we’ve got to go to Mississippi State (next game). I hope our preparation and I hope that our players’ focus going there is no different than what it’s going to be coming in here for a 3 o’clock tip on Saturday.”

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Scouting Kentucky: The Wildcats come in off an upset loss at South Carolina on Wednesday in a game that saw the Gamecocks nearly double their point output in the final 11:41 minutes of the game. Kentucky led 54-41 when South Carolina outscored the ‘Cats 40-24 the rest of the way. The ‘Cats tied the game at 78-all in the closing seconds, but a bank-shot three-pointer by Carolina to beat the buzzer handed Kentucky its first league loss.

The Wildcats opened the ’19-20 season with a 69-62 victory over then-No. 1 Michigan State, but they would lose at home in Lexington a week later against mid-major Evansville, 67-64. Kentucky also has a two-game losing streak this season — against Utah and Ohio State — before bouncing back with a win over then-No. 3 Louisville.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari once again has a talented crop of freshmen — led by 6-3 guard Tyrese Maxey who leads the team with 13.9 points per game to go with 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists — but Calipari also has a mix of veterans to lead his team. Sophomore 6-3 guards Josh Hagans (13.1 points, SEC-best 7.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and 3.4 turnovers) and sixth-man Immanuel Quickley (13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 42.4% from 3 and a league-best 93.3% from the free throw line) give the ‘Cats a formidable 1-2 backcourt punch, and 6-11 junior big man Nick Richards (13.1 points, 67.7% field goals, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks) has been playing at a high level of late.

Forwards Nate Sestina (6-8 senior grad-transfer from Bucknell) and EJ Montgomery (6-10 sophomore) give Kentucky added size and some face-up skill in the frontline. Three long, talented freshman in the 6-6 / 6-7 range — Keion Brooks, Jr., Kahlil Whitney, and Johhny Juzang — are each averaging double-figure minutes per game with helpful production.

As a team, Kentucky is averaging 75.0 points (6th in SEC), 46.1% field goal shooting (top-half of the league), 32.1% from 3, 76.8% free throws (tops in SEC), 38.1 rebounds (includes plus-5.6 on the glass), 14.9 assists, 5.3 steals, 5.0 blocks, and 12.7 turnovers per game.

Both Kentucky and Arkansas are in the top 50 nationally in field goal defense (‘Cats at 38.7% for No. 34, and Hogs at 39.3% for No. 49).

“Obviously, they (Kentucky) present a lot of problems with their length, defensive ability, scoring ability, and their so well coached, and I could go on and on,” Musselman said during his Thursday press conference. “I think the big things is we’ve just got to get ready to play, and then just see what happens. We’ve played really competitve all year, and we just want to play with maximum effort.

“I said it last night after the (Vanderbilt) game, the only way that we’re going to be able to play and compete with Kentucky is if we play our A game. We can’t bring a B-plus game and expect to compete. We have to bring our A-plus game to compete with this team, and I truly believe that.”

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Hogs win one going away after a stretch of close games: Before Arkansas’s 75-55 home win Wednesday over Vanderbilt, you have to go back to the 98-79 win over Tulsa in early December to find the last time Arkansas beat a team soundly in a game. The Razorbacks have won 6 of their last 7 contests counting Tulsa, but that stretch included hard-fought and in some cases come-from-behind wins over Vaparaiso (72-68), Indiana (71-64), Texas A&M (69-59), and Ole Miss (76-72) with a close loss at LSU (79-77) sprinkled in.

But against the ‘Dores, the Hogs built a double-digit lead before the midway point of the second half and never looked back as senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., notched a career-high 30 points to go with 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Whitt became the third Razorbacks to score 30 points in a game this season, which was timely given that the previous two Hogs to reach that milestone — Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe — were held scoreless in the first hald before finishing with a combined 13 points.

Sophomore guard Desi Sills scored 13 points (he was 6-of-9 from the field against Vandy, and he’s shooting 60.8% inside the arc for the season while averaging 10.0 points per game), and sophomore forward Reggie Chaney had his most prodcutive game of the season — 14 points (6-of-6 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), 3 rebounds, and 2 assists while playing a season-high 22 minutes off the bench.

“I think Reggie, he was phenomenal last night,” Musselman said of Chaney, who began the season on a three-game suspension and has since struggled with consistency. “His attitude has really been great.”

Joe did hit four second-half three-point shots to finish with 12 points (he’s now the SEC leader in made triples with 63 on the season), and despite scoring only 1 point Jones had 7 rebounds and a game-high 8 assists. Jones at 18.1 points per game and Joe at 17.8 currently rank third and fourth, respectively, in the SEC in scoring, while Whitt at 14.8 is ranked 12th.

After getting blown out on the glass (a combined minus-41) on the road against LSU and Ole Miss, Arkansas bounced back at home and was plus-8 (38-30) against the Commodores.  

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Muss at the Mic: The Head Hog is always thoughtful and expansive when it comes to discussing the many aspects of his Arkansas program, and Thursday provided the latest flurry. Here are some samples …

— On Kentucky’s annual size and length advantage over most teams, especially Arkansas, Muss said: “That’s not real good news. Daniel (Gafford) is not walking through the door, so to hear that there was a matchup (problem) size-wise in the past — I’m assuming this is one of the smaller Arkansas teams in many, many years, I’m guessing. Thanks, I’m probably going to sleep a couple of hours less now. We’ve just got to try to figure out matchups and try to rebound the ball as good as we can. We’ve got to try to have as good a post defense as we’ve had. The size is a concern. The length is a concern. The quickness is a concern. The ability to get to the free throw line is a concern. Their dribble-drive offense with space is a concern. Their lob threats are a concern. That’s a lot of concerns.”

— On his relationship with Kentucky head coach John Calipari, Muss said: “I love Coach Cal. I just think he really cares for the coaching profession. He speaks highly of other coaches. He understand the ups and downs of the coaching business. When I was with the (Memphis) Grizzlies with coach (Mike) Fratello, coach Fratello and coach Cal would have a lot of late-night dinners with large groups of people at the dinners. I went to a lot of those, they were colorful. I saw a lot of when he was coaching at Memphis, obviously we played in the same building, so that year I was going to a lot of their games. Then the international stuff, I was coaching the Dominican Republic team, then he ended up coaching it and I went and coached the Venezuelan team. So we got to eat a lot (together), because in those competitions you stay in the same hotel and eat in the same area. I think he’s such an incredible X and O coach, and he’s such an important part of college basketball because he’s a colorful personality that’s a great coach but also somebody that does a great job of pulling the coacing community together.”

— On the impact of Kentucky’s current 7-game winning streak over Arkansas, Muss said: “I don’t think Kentucky beating Arkansas, or having any type of streak, in my opinion it has no bearing, at all. Going to sound like a broken record, but every game’s got its own identity, comes up with its own theme the minute the refs throw the ball up.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Kentucky, Arkansas goes back on the road for a game against Mississippi State that is set for a 6 p.m. CT tip-off on Wednesday, Jan. 22, then the Hogs return home for the Big 12/SEC Challenge against TCU on Saturday, Jan. 25.

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Update on Hoop Hogs’ position in various national analytics rankings: Arkansas is No. 23 in the latest NCAA NET rankings, which is second-best among SEC teams as Auburn sits at No. 11. Last season, NET replaced RPI/SOS as the NCAA tournament selection committee’s chief analytics source for helping determine NCAAT at-large bids and seeding.

As of Friday, Arkansas was No. 25 in KenPom ratings, No. 27 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 29 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and No. 23 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).

Arkansas received 65 voting “points” in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday — the most the Hogs have received all season — but for the second consecutive week that translated to the 28th most points in the poll.

In his most-recent projected NCAA tournament field that was updated on Monday, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Hogs slated as an NCAA tournament at-large 6-seed if the season ended today, matching Arkansas’s best seeding projection from Lunardi so far this season.

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Feral Fast Takes: The Chasing Greatness Watch is on through 16 games as junior guard Mason Jones — by the way, he had 9 well-orchestrated assists, his career high, in the win over Ole Miss — leads Arkansas in scoring at 18.1 points (3rd in the SEC), rebounding at 6.1, assists at 3.6, and steals at 1.9 (4th in the SEC), and if he finishes the season leading the team in those four categories he will be the first Hog to do so since Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (22.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 steals) accomplished the feat in the 1978-79 Elite Eight season when he was a first-team All American … at 75.2% on the season, Arkansas ranks 3rd in the SEC in free throw shooting percentage … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (22.8%); No. 7 in turnover-margin (plus-5.4 per game); and No. 16 in turnovers forced (17.6 per game) … the Hogs have the 12th-best “adjusted defense” ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced stats … senior forward Adrio Bailey is top 10 nationally in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (No. 7 with a 9.4 score) and Defensive Rating (No. 10 at 79.9).

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