By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — The No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks had their share of issues in the preseason while scraping by with too-close-for-comfort wins in two exhibition games, and it was more of the same for much of their 2021-22 season-opener against Mercer on Tuesday at Bud Walton Arena as the Hoop Hogs fought their way back from a double-digit deficit en route to a 74-61 win going away on Nolan Richardson Court.
Senior guard and preseason All SEC first team pick JD Notae led all scorers with 30 points to go with a game-high 7 steals while senior wing Au’Diese Toney had a double-double (18 points and 11 rebounds). Senior guard Chris Lykes put in 16 points off the bench while sophomore big man Jaylin Williams contributed 4 points, 8 rebounds, a team-high 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal.
Arkansas had struggled in the preseason on multiple fronts — overall anemic three-point shooting, lack of sharing the ball/assisting on made shots, poor assist-to-turnover ratios, spotty rebounding, spotty free throw shooting, and spotty three-point field goal defense — as Division II East Central University and D1 mid-major North Texas each had chances to win in the closing minutes at BWA before the Hogs survived both opponents by a combined winning margin of 11 points.
Against Mercer in the first 20 minutes, it was deja vu as Arkansas went through many of the same problems while falling behind by 10 points late in the first half before trailing at halftime, 36-28.
Arkansas’ defense gave up 8-of-17 shooting from 3 (47.1%) and 5-of-10 shooting from inside the arc in the first half, while offensively the Hogs shot 10-of-26 (38.5%), including 3-of-12 from 3 (25.0%). The Hogs won the rebounding battle in the opening stanza (17-12).
Behind 10 quick-strike points by Notae, the Hogs opened the second half on a 14-2 run to claim a 42-38 lead at the 16:18 mark, but Mercer answered with its own 6-0 spurt and from there the teams traded the lead until Lykes’ three-pointer put Arkansas up for good, 56-54, with 8:43 remaining.
The Razorbacks closed the game on a 21-7 run to claim their 13-point winning margin.
Arkansas has won three consecutive season-openers at home under third-year head coach Eric Musselman, who improved to 20-1 against low-to-mid-major teams and 46-19 overall as Head Hog.
The Razorbacks improved to 5-1 all-time against Mercer while avenging a 69-66 overtime loss the last time the two teams met in December 2015 in North Little Rock. The Bears finished last season 18-11 overall, including an 8-9 mark for 7th place in the Southern Conference, and they were picked in the preseason to finish 6th in the SoCon in ’21-22.
“Obviously, we needed JD’s points,” Musselman said. “We’ve got to work on our shot selection across the board.”
Even though Arkansas had all 12 scholarship players available for the first time on Tuesday after overcoming various injuries in the preseason, the Razorbacks were once again disconnected at both ends of the court for extended stretches of the game before those two big second-half runs righted the ship.
For the game, Arkansas was outpointed from three-point range (6-of-21 for the Hogs compared to 13-of-31 for the Bears) and once again the Hogs’ assists-to-turnovers (13-15) was a disappointment.
But Arkansas’ big second half helped them in dominating free throw shooting (16-of-22 compared to Mercer’s 2-of-6), rebounding (35-22), points-in-the-paint (36-8), points-off-turnovers (21-10), second-chance-points (15-3), fast-break points (14-0), and bench points (20-12).
Arkansas finished a respectable 26-of-55 in overall shooting (47.3%) compared to Mercer’s 23-of-51 (45.1%).
“We’ve got to have a better assist-to-turnover ratio,” Musselman said. “We now have a body of three games, and so that’s got to get better for sure.
“I thought our effort and energy was phenomenal. I thought Au’Diese Toney was, in my opinion not even close, player of the game.”
Notae, Toney, and Lykes combined to score all but 10 of the Hogs’ 74 points. Notae was the first Hog to score 30 or more points in a game since ’19-20 when Mason Jones notched 30 or more points nine times.
Toney’s efficiency (7-of-9 shooting mostly in the paint and at the rim) and fearless offensive rebounding were consistently a plus throughout the game.
Preseason All SEC second team pick Devo Davis did not attempt a shot in the game and was scoreless, although Musselman cited his defensive play guarding returning All Southern Conference guard Neftali Alavarez, who finished with only 8 points (4-of-13 shooting, including 0-of-6 from 3) to go with 3 turnovers.
Musselman started a small-ball lineup of Notae, Toney, Davis, Stanley Umude, and KK Robinson.
The Hogs led 17-10 when Mercer went on a 24-7 run to take a 34-24 lead.
Next up for Arkansas is another home game at BWA as D1 Gardner-Webb of the Big South Conference comes in for a 2 p.m. CT tipoff on Saturday.