Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Impressions made: Hogs’ early season play gains support
Arkansas' Mason Jones (15) celebrates with teammate Isaiah Joe (1) during a timeout after the Razorbacks took the lead late in the second half of Arkansas' 72-68 win over Valparaiso on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE -- If media members were voting on the SEC men's basketball finish now instead of back in October, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks would be picked a lot higher than 11th.
Arkansas (11-1) opens SEC play tonight under first-year Coach Eric Musselman against Texas A&M (6-5) in Walton Arena coming off a 71-64 victory at Indiana last Sunday.
Texas A&M at Arkansas
WHEN 6 p.m.
WHERE Walton Arena, Fayetteville
RECORDS Arkansas 11-1, 0-0 SEC; Texas A&M 6-5, 0-0
SERIES Arkansas leads 102-56
RADIO Razorback Sports Network
TV SEC Network
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
POS. NAME, HT., YR.;PPG;RPG
G Savion Flagg, 6-7;Jr.;11.3;4.5
G Jay Jay Chandler, 6-4;Jr.;8.0;2.5
G Andre Gordon, 6-2;Fr;6.0;2.3
F Josh Nebo, 6-9; Sr.;11.4;7.2
F Emmanuel Miller, 6-7;Fr.;4.5;6.0
COACH Buzz Williams (6-5 in first season at Texas A&M, 359-160 in 14 seasons overall)
POS. NAME, HT., YR.;PPG;RPG
G Mason Jones, 6-5;Jr.;19.7;6.2
G Isaiah Joe, 6-5, Fr.;17.4;4.7
G Jimmy Whitt, 6-3;Sr.;13.5;5.6
G Desi Sills, 6-2;Fr.;9.8;3.0
F Adrio Bailey, 6-6;Sr.;6.9;4.9
COACH Eric Musselman (11-1 in first season at Arkansas, 121-35 in five seasons overall)
CHALK TALK Arkansas’ Eric Musselman and Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams are meeting for the first time as head coaches … The Razorbacks and Aggies split two games last season with each team winning on the road. Texas A&M ended a 10-game losing streak at Arkansas by winning 87-80 at Walton Arena. It was the Aggies’ first victory at Arkansas since they won 93-76 at Barnhill Arena on March 1, 1986. … The Razorbacks are 8-0 at Walton Arena this season and have won 10 consecutive games there — including Ole Miss and Alabama last season — since losing to the Aggies. … Tonight is Texas A&M’s first road game this season, but fifth away from home. The Aggies are 0-4 in neutral-site games. … Arkansas is 57-15 against Texas A&M in Fayetteville. … The Razorbacks are 16-12 in SEC openers, including 11-4 at home. … Tonight’s game is the first of five Saturday home sellouts for the Razorbacks. … Kevin Fitzgerald will do play-by-play and Dane Bradshaw will be the color analyst for the SEC Network telecast.
— Bob Holt
"They've come out of the gate, and they're not afraid of anybody," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "They play with a toughness, a swagger."
The Razorbacks are going with a smaller lineup and often play four guards at the same time with starters Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Jimmy Whitt and Desi Sills with Jalen Harris off the bench.
"[Musselman] has given freedom to his guards, which are their strength, and those kids are responding," Calipari said. "They're playing small ball, but who cares how you play? It's about winning. And guess what -- they're winning."
Arkansas is No. 24 in this week's NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings, a system based on a team's strength of schedule -- and opponents' strength of schedule -- as well as where games are played, margin of victory and offensive and defensive efficiency.
At No. 8, Auburn is the only SEC team ranked ahead of Arkansas in the NET.
The Razorbacks are third among SEC teams in The Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls for receiving votes -- 34th and 36th, respectively -- behind Auburn and Kentucky. The Tigers are ranked No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 7 in the coaches poll with the Wildcats No. 17 and No. 14.
"Arkansas has been terrific," said Andy Kennedy, the former Ole Miss coach who is an analyst for the SEC Network. "Everybody knows Eric Musselman is a great coach, and he's come in and certainly pushed all of the right buttons initially with the way that they're playing.
"Arkansas is turning people over, guarding the three-point line. They're playing a small lineup, but it's not hurting them on the defensive glass."
The Razorbacks rank first nationally in three-point defense (21.9%), 16th in turnovers forced per game (18.3), 19th in scoring defense (59.8 points per game), 20th in turnover margin (+4.8) and 29th in blocked shots (5.2). They're 279th in rebounding margin (-2.4), but are grabbing 72.4% of their opponents' missed shots.
"Really impressed, I think Coach [Musselman] has done an incredible job," Texas A&M Coach Buzz Williams said. "I've really enjoyed studying them the last few days. Their defensive numbers are superb, bordering on elite, in my opinion."
Musselman was 110-34 at Nevada the previous four seasons and was an NBA head coach with Golden State and Sacramento.
"There was no way Eric Musselman was going to come into this league and not be successful," Georgia Coach Tom Crean said. "He's too good a coach, he does too many things well, he's got too much experience and they have really, really good guards.
"You could see that a year ago, so he walked into a situation where his style of play really fits the personnel that he has there."
Musselman said the Razorbacks are smaller than most opponents but present mismatches.
"Every game we hear the same thing -- how is Arkansas going to match up with people?" Musselman said after the Razorbacks beat the bigger Hoosiers. "Well, they also have to match up with us because we play four guards and we space the floor and we're hard to [defend] when we're knocking down threes."
Arkansas has three of the SEC's top 16 scorers in Jones [19.7 points], Joe [17.4] and Whitt [13.5].
"I think they're very efficient in how they play offensively," Williams sad. "I think their team is very aware of what shots are going where, who is shooting the ball relative to the play call."
Kennedy said he believes Arkansas, which won SEC regular-season titles in 1992 and 1994, is a contender.
"I think Arkansas has as a good a chance as anybody in a wide-open SEC," Kennedy said. "So far they've maximized their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.
"That's a credit to Eric and his staff and they way they've chosen to play and then the kids following that blueprint to perfection to this point."
Whitt said how hard the Razorbacks play has a lot to do with their success.
"I think when it comes to basketball, or sports in general, effort makes up for a lot of things," Whitt said. "Just wanting it more -- pure effort -- going out there and playing hard with the guy next to you."
Musselman said the Razorbacks still have to show in SEC play they're better than their preseason projection.
"This is when they said we'd be 11th, not through the first group of games that we're at right now," he said. "So we haven't proven anything.
"Maybe the media's going to be geniuses, and that's where we'll fall, but we thank everybody for the extra motivation."
Crean coached at Indiana for nine seasons -- with three Sweet 16 appearances -- before being fired, sitting out a year and being hired at Georgia last season. He said he watched the last eight minutes of the Razorbacks' victory over the Hoosiers, when Arkansas overcame a 61-52 deficit.
"It is really hard to win a game at Indiana," Crean said. "Even though the crowd was doing everything they could to help Indiana, [the Razorbacks] never let it affect them.
"That's the sign of a really good, well-coached team, and a team that has guys who really believe they're going to make plays."
Texas A&M (6-5) is No. 196 in the NET rankings, but Musselman said the Razorbacks can't overlook any SEC team.
"I think that certainly in conference play it takes on a completely different competitiveness," he said. "Crazy things happen in conference play.
"We know, hey, come conference play, every single game if you don't bring your A game, you're not winning."
Sports on 01/04/2020
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.