LITTLE ROCK — The highlight of the day truly was the pre-game ceremony to unveil Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena — an event that saw the return of Mike Anderson and many former players; an elegant video message from the 42nd President, Bill Clinton; and Richardson thanking fans and leading the Hog Call — but once the first-ever meeting between Arkansas and Little Rock (albeit an exhibition game) got underway Sunday several storylines emerged leading to a few takeaways in what was first-year head coach Eric Musselman’s unofficial debut in Fayetteville.
* Arkansas attempted 35 three-point shots — making 13 for 37.1% efficiency — in what Musselman conceded in his post-game press conference would be the calling-card for his first Razorbacks team. What stood out more than the high volume of three’s taken was that for the most part, the attempts were good-to-great looks generated by NBA-esque sets that utilized double screens, single/double screens, simultaneous ball-side and off-side screening, off-the-ball movement, perimeter off-setting as drives into the paint were occuring, pick-and-roll, and players passing up good shots for a better shot (or similar shots for better shooters). True that Arkansas shot only 26-of-62 (41.9%), but the execution and functionality of a brand-new offense in a first dress-rehearsal against a D1 opponent was often impressive.
* Hogs sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Joe continued to prove he has elite NBA-level shooting ability from beyond the 3-point line. Less is more in basketball at each next-level, and Joe understands that as he always economizes dribbling while making quick decisions to either shoot, get off the ball, or drive with his eye on setting up a teammate if he can’t get a clean look. He went 8-of-17 from 3 (and 1-of-1 from the free throw line) for his 25 points to go with 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, and a couple of drawn charges in 30 minutes. Hands-down Joe was the player of the game as his shooting was the catalyst in both big Arkansas runs — 19-3 to start the game and 21-6 to start the second half — that decided the outcome. Joe didn’t play the final 4-plus minutes of the game, otherwise he probably drops a 30-piece.
* After viewing an hour of Razorbacks practice, the Red-White game, and now the first exhibition game against Little Rock, it’s clear why Musselman chose the trio of Joe, sophomore guard Desi Sills, and senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. to start and play the majority of the backcourt minutes: This group simply grasps and executes the offensive schemes the best [i]right now[/i]. They combined for 16 of Arkansas’s first 22 points, but what triggered those made shots was their collective understanding and decision-making — a.k.a. feel — while executing when to get off the ball, when and how to drive to set up offsetting or cutting teammates, spacing, and staying within their strengths while possessing the confidence and willingness to take good shots when presented the opportunities.
* Sills picked up where he left off last season when he moved into a starting role and benefited from playing off the ball as a complement to a shooter in Joe and a playmaker at the 1. Sills finished with 12 points (5-of-11 field goals, including 2-of-7 from 3), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal in 26 minutes before leaving the game late with leg cramps. Whitt was a force on the glass, leading the Hogs with 9 rebounds (he had 8 in the first half) to go with 7 points, 2 assists, and 1 steal in a team-high 31 minutes. Both guards did a good job of driving into the lane and kicking out to teammates, and both were decisive and strong slashing to the basket when they looked to finish.
* Arkansas’s interior defense was shaky which led to putbacks for Little Rock as well as 30 free-throw attempts after 26 fouls. Rebounding was an adventure, too, although the Hogs were only minus-5 (42-37) against a frontline with good size and athleticism. The Hogs’ lack of frontline size and depth speaks to the in-the-paint problems (both defending and rebounding), which is why it’s critical this smallish team do a better job of taking care of the basketball on offense (18 Hog turnovers, but only 7 in the second half). Sophomore forward Reggie Chaney got into immediate foul-trouble playing off the bench and committed 3 turnovers (a problem last season), but in 15 minutes he did grab 5 rebounds and blocked a shot while scoring 4 points. Arkansas will need Chaney to clean up the fouls and miscues as he is the only proven per-40-minute producer as a rebounder and rim-protector. Veteran guards Jalen Harris and Mason Jones each committed 3 turnovers as they struggled with decision-making and execution within the offense.
* Senior forwards Jeantal Cylla and Adrio Bailey both started and played solid games, representing the best of the frontline contributions as it was clear both have early, realistic understanding of their roles. Cylla finished the game with 13 points (on 5-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-5 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal in 22 minutes. He’s the one frontcourt option who is encouraged to take shots from the perimeter, and his 10-point second-half revealed some of his face-up ability. Conversely, Bailey is tasked with being more of a blue-collar helper, and he embraced that role by being active as an opportunistic rebounder, defender, and scorer. He finished with 8 points (2-of-2 from the field on a springy putback and a dunk in transition, as well as 4-of-4 from the free throw line) to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists (he looked for others instead of taking ill-advised shots), and 1 steal in 18 minutes. Cylla and Bailey combined for the first 8 points of the second half to spark the Hogs’ 21-6 run that effectively put the game away. They also combined for 5 turnovers, but the miscues were overcome by their many other contributions as the Hogs functioned better with them on the floor together.
* Free throw shooting was a positive. Arkansas made 14 of 18 attempts for 77.8%, but often free throw efficiency can be misleading depending upon who took the bulk of the free throws. Four names and a number — Bailey, Chaney, Cylla, and Ethan Henderson all shot free throws and combined for 9-of-11 at the line for 81.8% — offer encouragement following a season in which collectively the Hogs’ frontline was sub-60% from the free throw line. Tiny sample size that doesn’t prove anything, but still a positive takeaway.
* Regarding on-ball perimeter defense, Arkansas did a lot of things proactively to disrupt the point of engagement in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop scenarios. Guards and forwards interacting with lots of hedging, shading, and dictating flow before bailing and recovering to stay with their man. So, no switching on screens. Also noteworthy that close-outs came with hands in front of the face/eyes to disrupt sight lines which can be effective in disrupting both shooting and passing opportunities.