FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas Razorbacks fans got to celebrate the unveiling of Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena on Sunday, and then the Hoop Hogs did their part by punctuating the feel-good day with a 79-64 exhibition win over the Little Rock Trojans in the first-ever basketball meeting between the two schools.
Arkansas opened both halves in a big way — a 19-3 run to start the game and a 21-6 burst to start the second half — and sophomore guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith made 8-of-17 from 3 to finish with a game-high 25 points as the Razorbacks made first-year head coach Eric Musselman’s unofficial debut a success.
“First of all, I think the court looks awesome,” Musselman said following the game. “I think the administration did a phenomenal job. I mean, everything, even the lane I think looks better. The logos that they put down, I know that is what the fans wanted. It’s a classy look the way they did it.
“Coach Richardson, legendary coach. It’s kind of a little bit unique that the first time I step on the floor I look out there and Todd Day, and Corey Beck, all these dudes that I have incredible admiration for. Then, obviously, with Coach (Mike) Anderson, I think it was awesome that he and his wife were able to come back and participate in the event. I’m new to it. I just kind of stood back and watched and was just appreciative that the student-athletes and our staff were a small part of it.”
As for the game, Arkansas’s success early and throughout was defined mostly by the three-point line. Joe’s 17 attempts from behind the arc were nearly half of the Hogs’ 35 launches from distance — Arkansas finished 13-of-35 for 37.1% from 3.
It’s a stat Musselman conceded likely foreshawdows the identity of his first Arkansas team.
“From a stylistic standpoint, obviously the 3-ball is something that’s going to be extremely important to us,” Musselman said. “Thirty-five attempts from beyond the arc is a lot of attempts, but that’s who we’re going to be.
“They did make a run on us there toward the end of the first half after we got up big, 19-3. You know when you shoot a lot of 3’s that can happen. So, when you bang two or three 3’s and then you’re able to get defensive stops — and your defense can create a steal — that’s who we’re going to have to be. We’re not going to be a grind-it-out halfcourt team.”
Senior-graduate transfer Jeantal Cylla had 13 points (9 in the second half) to go with 6 rebounds, and sophomore guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal before leaving late in the second half with what Musselman referred to as cramps in one of his legs.
Little Rock won the rebounding battle (42-37), Arkansas won turnovers (22-18), but the biggest difference in the game statistically was the 3-point disparity (the Trojans shot a paltry 3-of-15 for 20%) and free throw shooting efficiency (Arkansas was 14-of-18 for 77.8%, and Little Rock was 13-of-30 for 43.3%).
“Obviously, we’ve got to get better at post defense, rebounding the basketball, and turnovers — although we did a much better job in the second half taking care of the basketball,” Musselman said. “I did feel, and our staff felt, from an execution standpoint we got some really, really clean looks out of some halfcourt sets, which we didn’t know being new if we were going to execute stuff.
“When you’re putting stuff in sometimes you get three or gour guys executing and one guy forgets and it blows the whole play up. But I thought, again, early on that group that started was phenomenal. Even the shots we missed I thought we got some really good looks.”
Little Rock head coach and former Arkansas All American Darrell Walker pointed to the free throw line as his team’s downfall.
“If I’m on the road and I get to shoot the ball 30 times from the free throw line and we make 13, that has nothing to do with the free throws (not a lack of opportunity), that’s on my players to make free throws,” Walker said. “We missed about eight layups, and my wing shot about 17 percent from the field.
“Overall, I feel really good about my young basketball team. I think we’re big. I think we’re athletic. I think we’ve got some length. I think we’re going to be good, especially when Sun Belt conference comes around.”
Joining Joe, Sills, and Cylla in the starting lineup were senior-grad transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (7 points, team-high 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in a team-high 31 minutes) and senior forward Adrio Bailey (8 points on perfect 2-of-2 field goals and 4-of-4 free throws, plus 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal).
“It’s not often that when you’re recruiting and trying to put together a roster late, there’s not a lot of options,” Musselman said of bringing Whitt from SMU back to Arkansas in the off-season. “We felt Jimmy was as good, if not the best, we could get from a guard standpoint because of his ability to rebound. There were other players that might have been good shooters or really good ball handlers, but believe it or not, we actually feel like Jimmy Whitt is as good, if not the best rebounding point guard in the nation.”
Joe – he’s already Arkansas’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers in a season with 113 as a freshman — looks to have picked up where he left off a year ago when he finished the regular season as the top 3-point shooter in the SEC.
“I thought he was awesome,” Musselman said. “I have a buddy that I have great respect for, a guy who was a former assistant coach, Aubrey McCreary, who was with the Cavs as an assistant. I actually brought him in to watch two practices prior to this game, watch this game and watch us on Monday and Tuesday again just to give me an outside, kind of consultant-type look. He was at dinner last night and said, ’15.’ And I said, ‘What’s 15?’ And he said, ‘That’s how many three balls you’re going to need Isaiah to take.’ He was pretty prophetic in that we needed him to take a lot of 3’s.”
Little Rock’s leading returning scorer — 5-7 sophomore guard Markquis Nowell of Harlem, N.Y., who averaged 11.1 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.4 steals last season as a freshman — fouled out with 9 points (only 3-of-11 from 3), 4 assists, and 5 turnovers. Sophomore forward Nikola Maric (6-10) led the Trojans in scoring with 14 points to go with 9 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal. Forward Kamani Johnson had a double-double — 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists.
The Trojans whittled the Hogs early 16-point lead down to four late in the first half, but Joe’s final made triple in the second half gave Arkansas a 56-32 lead with 14:46 left in the game, and from there Little Rock never got closer than a 13-point deficit.
Arkansas has now won 31 consecutive exhibition games played at BWA, last losing in November 2003 against the EA Sports Midwest All-Stars, 76-71, in former coach Stan Heath’s second season in Fayetteville.
Next up, Arkansas will host its second and final exhibition game against NCAA Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State. The Razorbacks open their 2019-20 regular season at home in BWA against old Southwest Conference foe Rice on Tuesday, Nov. 5, which is the opening day for regular-season play in college basketball.
Walker’s Trojans will also open their ’19-20 regular-season on Nov. 5 — on the road against Missouri State.