Hoop Hogs (2-0) vs. Montana (1-1) game preview: A new 6-5 star invades BWA

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LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman is known for his opponent scouting and game preparation, and it’s probably a good thing he was already personally aware of Montana star guard Sayeed Pridgett well before the Hogs-Grizzlies weekend matchup in Fayetteville.

Musselman knew Pridgett as a high schooler while recruiting him to Nevada, and the 6-5 senior guard comes to Fayetteville sporting gaudy early-season numbers through 2 games — 38.0 minutes, 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.0 block — all of which lead his team. He’s shooting 63.6% from the field and is 5-of-5 from the free throw line.

“I’ve known Sayeed for awhile,” Musselman said during his Friday press conference. “We recruited him at Nevada. He’s from Oakland. Seen him play against my younger son at one point a long time ago. Just a really good basketball player. Really multi-dimensional can play a combo guard. When they go really small they play him at the 4-spot. Against quicker people, he’ll post up against smaller, quick guys. Then he plays right out of that mid-post and does a great job of facing up. Then if you put a bigger guy on him they like to isolate him. So he obviously creates a lot of mismatch problems. He’s one of the best players in their conference if not the best player in their conference. Obviously the tradition of Montana in the Big Sky is phenomenal as far as what they have done in making NCAA Tournaments.”

Arkansas (2-0) will host Montana (1-1) at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in what represent the first of four home games in November being billed as the Collegiate Hoops Road Show. The game be seen live via SEC Network Plus.

The Grizzlies have won back-to-back Big Sky regular-season titles while playing in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, and the 2019-20 version of the team is led by Pridgett, senior 6-4 guard Kendal Manuel, and three freshmen.

The Hogs have been dominant defensively while winning their first two games over Rice and North Texas by a combined margin of 71 points. 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%). 

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. 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).

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.

On offense, Arkansas’s star duo of 6-5 guards [b]Mason Jones[/b] and [b]Isaiah Joe[/b] have been really good out of the gates. Jones is averaging 24.0 points per game (third in the SEC) and Joe is averaging 20.0 points per game (sixth in the league).

Jones is also averaging 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 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. Joe has shown 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. 

Seniors [b]Adrio Bailey[/b] and [b]Jimmy Whitt, Jr.[/b], plus sophomore [b]Desi Sills[/b] have been reliable starters, and perhaps nobody has brought the [i]X-factor[/i] 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 [i]Swiss army knife[/i] 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. 

“When he shoots it we still feel like it’s going in,” Musselman said of Sills’ early misfires from 3. “He’s got good rotation on the ball, he’s got good arch on the ball. His feet have been set for most of them. What I was really impressed with was even when the shot hasn’t been falling, the impact he’s had. I thought his steal off an inbound pass the last game was kind of a momentum breaker for North Texas, and he’s really defended his position incredible. 

“He hasn’t been shot hunting. He knows he’d like to make a 3-ball, but he’s had good patience and it’ll fall. He shot the ball well last year over the course of an extended period of time, so we feel like it’s just a matter of time before he knocks down 2-3 and his confidence will grow even more.”

Next up for Arkansas is game two of the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow as the Hogs will host Texas Southern at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Bud Walton Arena.

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