Hoop Hogs notebook: Plenty of questions as Arkansas opens ’20-21 vs MVSU next week

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks are just eight days away from their Nov. 25 season-opener against Mississippi Valley State at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, and plenty of question marks still hang in the balance with an ever-escalating number of Covid-19 cases in the United States plus the Hogs’ 10 scholarship newcomers on the roster headlining the unknowns.

Will Arkansas play in 2020-21? It seems obvious the Razorbacks will play, but with the daily diluge of game postponments and reports of positive tests among players and coaches throughout sports, it’s anyone’s guess how many of the 27 scheduled games will actually be played. For example, SEC football was limited to three games last weekend with four more games being posponed due to the pandemic, and though the Hogs played Saturday at Florida it was without their head coach Sam Pittman, who stayed behind in Fayetteville after a positive test for Covid-19. On Tuesday alone, reports surfaced that Ole Miss basketball head coach Kermit Davis had tested positive for the disease, and the New Mexico State basketball team has relocated to Phoenix indefinitely until conditions in the state of New Mexico allow for a return to practice and play. You get the picture. As cases continue to rise and break daily records, it’s becoming more clear if not obvious that each game potentially could be in doubt within hours of when games are scheduled to be played. So, expect the unexpected.

What to take away from the Red-White game last Thursday? For one, senior graduate-transfer Justin Smith lived up to all of the preseason reports that he was the Hogs’ most consistent performer at both ends of the floor. He scored 22 points on only 11 shot attempts, which included making all 3 of his three-point attempts, to go with 6 assists and 3 rebounds. Freshman guard Moses Moody backed up notions that he should be a day-one starter as he tallied 21 points (while shooting 50% from the field), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals, and his production was not limited to perimeter shooting as he created scoring in the mid-range as well as finished at and around the rim. Junior-transfer JD Notae came in with the reputation as an alpha-scorer, and he checked that box by ringing up a game-high 30 points, including 24 in the second half when he made four consecutive triples in a 1:38 span (overall, he shot 9-of-18 from 3). 

Junior guard Desi Sills (24 points), freshman guard KK Robinson (18 points), senior grad-transfer Vance Jackson, Jr. (15 points and 6 rebounds), senior grad-transfer Jalen Tate (11 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds), freshman big man Jaylin Williams (4 points and 7 rebounds), and freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (8 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals) all made strong cases why they can bring starter value or belong in the top 8 rotation.

The Red team led throughout and won, 103-67. Collectively as a team, the biggest disappointment was the defense. The Red team shot nearly 58% from the field while the White team was better than 54% shooting. Arkansas coaches have lamented throughout preseason camp that as a collective roster the team lacks lateral mobility.  

Starters and rotations? With just over a week before that opener against MVSU, the Razorbacks are still evaluating to determine lineups and rotations. Here’s one updated guess at what the starting lineup will look like followed by the reserves …

Starters

   — Justin Smith (6-7 combo forward, senior)
   — Moses Moody (6-6 shooting guard / wing, freshman)
   — Jalen Tate (6-6 combo guard, senior)
   — Desi Sills (6-1 combo guard, junior)
   — Vance Jackson, Jr. (6-9 combo forward, senior) or Jaylin Williams (6-10 forward / center, freshman)

Reserves

   — Jackson or Williams
   — JD Notae (6-1 combo guard, junior)
   — Connor Vanover (7-3 stretch-5, sophomore)
   — KK Robinson (6-0 point guard, freshman)
   — Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 combo guard, freshman)
   — Ethan Henderson (6-8 forward / center, junior)

Homecourt advantage? One reliable (and stubborn) decades-long truth is that Bud Walton Arena is one of the toughest venues in the nation for visiting teams to play in and come away victorious, but with the crowd-size restrictions implemented by the NCAA and SEC it raises the possibility of a field-leveling in terms of game atmosphere throughout the league in ’20-21. Arkansas is set to host a total of 16 games — 7 non-conference plus 9 SEC games — at BWA, a venue with a near-20,000-fan seating capacity that typically helps the Hogs finish in the Top 15 nationally in home-game attendance. Arkansas will be able to host 4,000 fans per game (tops in the SEC along with Tennessee), but with a scaled-down game atmosphere (thinking the absence of thousands of jam-packed-in, red-and-white-clad racous fans bearing down on the opponent with defeaning crowd noise) it stands to reason some of that usually reliable homecourt advantage could be diminished. Not making the point to be a Debbie Downer, only to illustrate just how an unprecedented set of circumstances could trickle down to impact both tangible and intangible aspects of the game.

Too soon to talk NCAAT? Never too soon to talk Big Dance, and in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s updated NCAA tournament field of 68 projections released on Tuesday he slotted Arkansas as a 10-seed, which is exactly where he had the Hogs in his previous Brackeology update of Oct. 7. Lunardi projects 7 SEC teams to make the ’20-21 NCAAT, a list that includes Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Alabama, and Ole Miss. Speaking of the NCAAT, the NCAA on Monday announced intentions of holding the entire 68-team event in one location — Indianapolis — in March and April.

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