Arkansas basketball:

5 Out, featuring life without Isaiah Joe

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Friday, February 14, 2020
Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe (center) returns to the bench Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, during the second half of the Razorbacks' 78-67 win over Texas Christian in Bud Walton Arena. Joe was held out of the game because of an injury.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe (center) returns to the bench Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, during the second half of the Razorbacks' 78-67 win over Texas Christian in Bud Walton Arena. Joe was held out of the game because of an injury.

FAYETTEVILLE — When news broke prior to the Auburn game on Feb. 4 that Isaiah Joe would be sidelined indefinitely following arthroscopic surgery on his inflamed right knee, it was an enormous blow to an already thin Arkansas roster.

Not only is Joe one of the more dangerous long-range shooters in the SEC and nationwide when fully healthy, he is an underrated defender. Losing his 17 points per game has been difficult for the Razorbacks to stomach, and his instinctive play on the defensive end has been missed, too.

Arkansas has allowed .84 points per possession this season when Joe is in the lineup, the best mark of any player on the roster. That figure jumps to a still-commendable .95 PPP when he sits or does not play, but there is no doubt his impact is extensive.

Entering Saturday’s matchup with Mississippi State in Bud Walton Arena, the Razorbacks have played four games without the sophomore. They are 1-3, and 0-3 in SEC play. Understandably, Arkansas has slipped a bit on both ends in that span, minus the TCU game when it posted its second-best offensive efficiency rating of the season (118.7), according to KenPom data.

Against top-15 Auburn, Missouri and Tennessee, the Razorbacks have scored at a troubling .93 point-per-possession clip, per HoopLens analytics. Three-point shooting sits at 32.7 percent in those games, which is above the team’s season average, but still not great.

The most concerning thing offensively, in my opinion, is Arkansas has not shot above 45 percent on 2-point looks in any of the last three games. Shots inside the arc have fallen at a 40-percent rate, and one could infer that Joe’s absence is certainly a factor here.

A 38 percent 3-point shooter at the college level, Joe is a floor spacer. Opposing teams understand not to leave him unattended or offer help even in instances in which a Razorbacks player dribble drives on his side of the floor for fear of the 3.

Some teams have opted to faceguard Joe, too, turning the game into televised 4-on-4.

Even then, Joe’s gravity and presence creates driving lanes and opportunity for high-percentage looks for Mason Jones, among the best in the country getting into the lane and creating contact, Jimmy Whitt, a midrange specialist capable of slipping to the rim, Desi Sills, and dump offs to forwards in the dunker spot.

Defensively, Arkansas has allowed 1.04 PPP in the last three games, and Tuesday it posted its worst defensive efficiency mark of the season (120.3). The Volunteers scored 40 of their 82 points in the paint behind eight layups and five dunks, at least two coming immediately off missed shots around the rim.

Opponents offensive rebound nearly 2 out of every 5 missed shots, which led to an average of 15 second-chance points. While Arkansas defended the 3-point line fairly well against Auburn, Missouri and Tennessee (27 percent), its 2-point defense lacked — 53.3 percent.

The Razorbacks have not been incredibly disciplined on this end either, and foul trouble has become a huge issue. In the last three games, teams have shot better than six free throws for every 10 field goals attempted.

Down a man with a shorthanded group, that is far from a winning recipe, especially on the road. Tennessee and Missouri combined to shoot 74 free throws on their home floor.

Reggie Chaney’s impact in lineup

After coming off the bench in his first 15 games of the season, sophomore forward Reggie Chaney has seen his role continually grow in the last 2-3 weeks.

Beginning with the TCU game in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Chaney was inserted into Arkansas’ starting lineup, and since then he has turned in a pair of his finer performances.

Chaney scored a career-high 17 points, grabbed 11 rebounds - six offensive - and recorded two steals and two blocks in the Razorbacks’ overtime loss at Missouri prior to fouling out. He became the fourth Arkansas player since 2010-11 to hit those marks in a game, joining Daniel Gafford, Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley.

Chaney’s eight points and 11 rebounds in the road win at Alabama on Feb. 1 were critical, and he rose to the occasion at the free throw line, too, knocking down 4 of 5 attempts just days after a 1-of-4 night against South Carolina.

He has continued to be efficient around the rim. Eric Musselman has noted previously that the length of SEC rim protectors has hardly bothered his forward, if at all. In conference-only games, Chaney has made 28 of 37 shots in the lane. He missed his only midrange jumper against the Tigers.

In addition to his scoring lift, he slots in the top 25 in the SEC in steal rate at 2.3 percent and has at least one steal in Arkansas’ last seven league games thanks to solid defensive anticipation. That was on display at Missouri from the jump.

In Chaney's six starts, Arkansas has limited its opponents to .96 points per possession with him on the floor - 1.11 PPP when he sits. Teams are still offensive rebounding at a fairly high rate when Chaney is in the lineup (34.3 percent), but that figure nears 38 percent without him.

Musselman wants and needs more defensive rebounding from his frontline, and Chaney has grabbed at least four in three of the last four games. He’s been tremendous on the offensive glass as well, recording 17 boards in four games this month.

That has led to an offensive rebound rate of 13.1 percent, according to KenPom, which ranks fifth in the league out of 89 qualifying players.

Chaney began the season in the doghouse, on a suspension that lasted three games, and found himself there again in the early stages of SEC play. Now, he is one of the Razorbacks’ most important pieces game in and game out.

Mason Jones hits rough patch

It wasn’t long ago that Mason Jones’ name was being mentioned with the likes of Jodie Meeks and Shaquille O’Neal as SEC players with multiple 40-point games in the last 30 years.

After becoming the first player in program history to score 30-plus points in three straight games and a run of six consecutive games with 19 or more points, Jones was rooted in conference player of the year conversations. He was thriving offensively with an unimaginable load, and he didn’t take possessions off defensively while doing so.

Since the overtime loss to Auburn, though, Jones has struggled with his jumper more than at any point in his junior season. Against Missouri and Tennessee, both Arkansas losses, Jones is 1 of 11 from 3-point range and 3 of 13 on 2-point attempts.

In games against TCU, South Carolina and Alabama, the guard was virtually unstoppable getting into the lane and drawing contact or finishing at the rim. He got 14 of 16 shots to fall in the painted area and drew 30 fouls, which led to a 31 of 44 stretch at the line - 15 of 16 vs. the Gamecocks.

On the Razorbacks’ current three-game losing streak, he is 9 of 15 in the lane, but 2 of 7 since Saturday. Jones has also taken a number of tough 2-point jumpers outside the lane, and he’s made only 2 of 11, missing all six attempts on the left side of the floor.

At Missouri, Jones became emotional and momentarily lashed out at Musselman in a huddle near the Razorbacks bench. The optics weren’t great. Tuesday, he did not start for the first time this season. Musselman noted, however, on the team’s pre-game show that the move was strategic and one that could give the team a bit of pop off the bench.

Jones went 1 of 10 from the floor and committed three turnovers in 24 minutes, his second lowest total of the season. Following a turnover at the 12:57 mark of the second half, he was subbed out and did not return to the floor. One would assume Musselman did so because his star was largely ineffective, and it was an opportunity with the game already in hand to rest Jones’ legs ahead of an important game with Mississippi State on Saturday.

Arkansas’ offensive numbers with Jones are the floor over the last two games are alarming. The Razorbacks scored at a dreadful .84 PPP clip over 110 possessions, shot 39.3 percent inside the arc and 15.8 percent from 3. That won’t win you a lot of games.

For the sake of the team, Jones has to be better moving forward, and he understands that. A post to his Twitter account on Wednesday suggests he is working to refocus and get back to his productive, positive ways.

Not many would be surprised if Jones turns in a terrific bounce-back game against the Bulldogs in front of what should be an electric sellout crowd in Bud Walton Arena.

Should Adrio Bailey attempt more 3s?

Without a doubt, Arkansas is lacking consistent perimeter shooting in the absence of Isaiah Joe.

Over the last three games, only three Razorbacks have knocked down 3-pointers: Mason Jones, Desi Sills and Adrio Bailey.

With Joe sidelined, Jones and Sills are Arkansas’ most capable threats beyond the arc, although Sills has had his bouts with efficiency from distance throughout the year and Jones is currently in a dry spell.

Bailey, though, has been a pleasant surprise from 3, providing the Razorbacks with four triples on six attempts in February.

Entering this weekend, he is 10 of 23 in his senior year, and 6 of 13 in SEC play. Against Auburn, he buried an early 3 to give Arkansas a 9-5 lead, and he added one midway through the first half at Missouri to, in a way, stabilize the Razorbacks’ offense.

Albeit the game was out of reach Tuesday, Bailey knocked down 2 of 3 from distance in a two-minute span and looked good doing so. His miss after consecutive makes was a heat check if I’ve ever seen one, but the first two looks were clean and his feet were set.

Given his recent success and Arkansas’ need for perimeter shooting, should Bailey attempt more 3s? After all, he is 5 of 8 this season on the left wing. I asked Eric Musselman that question on Thursday. His response was insightful, as usual.

“He has been a guy that’s made perimeter shots at a shockingly good (rate),” Musselman said. “Like, he’s one of those guys that actually in a game will shoot better. But I do think he’s shooting the right amount. I don’t think that we want to encourage him to shoot more than what he’s doing.

“I think he’s taking good, high-quality shots. He’s got a low volume of 3-point attempts, but I also think that’s why he’s got a really effective percentage, because he’s taking them with his feet set. So we’re not going to try to change that, although we do recognize that he has made more perimeter shots than we thought he would coming into the season. That’s due to his work ethic.”

In wrapping up his response, Musselman made it clear what he does want more from with Bailey.

“Defensive rebounding. That’s what we need. Plain and simple,” he added. “We need our power forward and our center to go get us 7,8, 9 defensive rebounds. That’s what this team needs.”

Mississippi State breakdown

It would be fair to say Arkansas will enter this weekend limping a bit following three straight losses in league play. Mississippi State, too, is coming in off of its worst loss of the season Tuesday at rival Ole Miss.

The Bulldogs were blown out 83-58 thanks to 40 points from Rebels guard Breein Tyree, arguably one of the conference’s most explosive scorers. As Eric Musselman said Thursday, both teams are hungry for a win this weekend.

Reggie Perry, Mississippi State’s star forward and a key reason the Bulldogs remain on the fringes in regards to the NCAA Tournament, is the head of the snake. He has recorded double-doubles in both career games against the Razorbacks, including 26 points and 13 rebounds in the teams’ first meeting this season. He went 14 of 15 at the line in the win in Starkville, Miss.

Perry, according to KenPom analytics, has the second-highest usage rate of any player in the SEC at 31.2 percent. He also takes nearly 29 percent of the Bulldogs’ shots when on the floor. Perry draws an average of 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes played, too, so the Razorbacks must find a way to defend him without fouling.

That has been a priority in prep this week, Musselman said. Perry drew nine whistles on Arkansas last month - five in non-scoring situations.

He has scored 24-plus points in four of Mississippi State’s last five games, including 27 at Florida in a come-from-behind win. Just finding a way to slow the 6-10, 250-pound sophomore would go a long way in the Razorbacks pulling out a much-needed win.

The Bulldogs are the SEC’s top offensive rebounding team (second nationally), grabbing 37 percent of their missed shots. Abdul Ado, the 6-11 junior forward, has the second-best OR rate in the league at 16.1 percent, and 6-7 Robert Woodard, who made an appearance in The Athletic’s latest 2020 NBA Mock Draft, is No. 21 at 7.5 percent. He and Perry are both effective players inside the arc.

Mississippi State is also best in the conference once at the line, hitting 80 percent of their attempts. I mentioned Arkansas’ tendency the last two games to put teams on the line with cheap fouls. That could come into play Saturday.

While the Bulldogs have a cast of solid players with good length, they have not always been connected defensively. Mississippi State’s 104.0 defensive rating in conference play ranks 10th out of 14 teams. It’s not a bunch that is going to create handfuls of turnovers - last in the league in steal rate - but it does deny 2-point attempts at a high rate (13.7 percent).

I also brought up Arkansas’ inefficiencies inside the arc of late, so that is another game-within-the-game aspect to keep an eye on.

Tyson Carter, a 6-4 guard who has come off the bench the last nine games, is the Bulldogs’ top threat from 3. He’s made 40 3-pointers this season, almost twice as many as any other player, but is just 12 of 50 in SEC play. Woodard is shooting 41 percent on 22 looks.

Nick Weatherspoon is the team’s playmaker on the perimeter and holds the league’s No. 3 assist rate at 30.6 percent. He did not score and tied a season high with six turnovers against Ole Miss on Tuesday, so he will likely be looking to bounce back on an individual level.

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