Arkansas basketball:

5 Out, featuring Vance Jackson finding his spots

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Friday, January 8, 2021
Arkansas forward Vance Jackson celebrates after making a 3-pointer during a game against Abilene Christian on Dec. 22, 2020, in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
( Gunnar Rathbun, Arkansas Razorbacks )
Arkansas forward Vance Jackson celebrates after making a 3-pointer during a game against Abilene Christian on Dec. 22, 2020, in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Vance Jackson said all he needed was an opportunity to prove his worth.

He got that chance Wednesday in Arkansas’ 79-74 road loss to Tennessee, finishing with 14 points — one point shy of matching his season high — and a team-high nine rebounds. Jackson’s perimeter touch returned, too, which provided the Razorbacks a big lift as Desi Sills struggled for the second consecutive game and Moses Moody added a season-low six points.

Jackson, the 6-9 forward who played only one minute in Arkansas’ loss to Missouri last Saturday, had a terrific look from 3-point range with 50 seconds to play against the Vols that would have given the Razorbacks a one-point lead, but the attempt rattled out. I didn’t have a problem with Jackson’s 3, and I don’t think anyone else did, either, especially after the way the possession began.

Jalen Tate dribbled left, fell down, and the ball somehow found JD Notae, whose quick cross-court pass found Jackson wide open. Notae threw his right arm up in the air as the shot went up. He thought it was money. So did Jackson.

I did, too, but not just because it was a quality look for a more-than-capable shooter. Jackson has been terrific from 3-point range on the right side of the floor this season — drastically more effective than the left.

As Arkansas enters this weekend’s home game with Georgia, Jackson has knocked down 9 of 16 attempts from 3 on the right side of the floor, including 6 of 10 from the right wing. His perimeter success Wednesday came from the right corner, where he hit all three attempts.

Coming into the Tennessee game, he was 0 of 3 from the right corner. ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes said during the TV broadcast that it is somewhat unusual for a right-handed shooter, to a degree, to prefer the right corner.

“Usually, a right-handed guy likes the left corner because you’ve got a little bit more room to work with,” Dykes said. “You can get buried behind the backboard in the right corner. Jackson stays just far enough up that he doesn’t lose vision of that rim. He’s living in that spot.”

In December, Jackson struggled mightily with his perimeter jumper on the left side of the floor. After hitting 1 of 3 left-wing attempts in the first two games of the season, he missed all 11 triple tries from that area in Arkansas’ seven games last month.

For the season, Jackson is 1 of 15 from 3 on the left wing and in the left corner. It is a puzzling reality, but the graduate transfer is a much more effective and efficient threat from deep when launching from right of the top of the key. Perhaps we see Jackson operating in that area with greater regularity moving forward.

Essentially all of his offense against the Vols came by making plays on the right side of the floor. He knocked down the three corner 3s, but he also made two nice plays off the bounce and attacked the lane impressively on Tennessee closeouts.

In the first half, Jackson notched a rare 1-on-1 score against reigning SEC defensive player of the year Yves Pons with the kind of up-and-under, left-handed scoop shot combo we hadn’t seen from him all season. Then with under nine minutes to play, he shot faked a Vols defender off the floor in the right corner, came to a jumpstop in the lane, avoided picking up a potential player control foul, stepped through and got a lefty floater to fall.

Those were among the first Vegas Vance (a nickname he picked up for his strong play in the Mountain West Conference Tournament) sightings of the season. I thought he was phenomenal.

“I feel like I'm a player, you know what I'm saying? I've just got to be consistent in (the coaches') eyes, have a positive mindset,” Jackson said. “I know I haven't been playing that much, even though I feel like I should've been playing, but I just don't let that get to me. I just work harder, keep grinding in the gym, be a positive voice on this team.

“I just felt like it's a big game and it's an opportunity that I was given, and I just took advantage of it.”

Eric Musselman said Wednesday’s performance is one Jackson can build on as Arkansas searches for ways to grab wins without forward Justin Smith. The coach added that Jackson was hungry for minutes and made the most of them.

“I think he needed a confidence boost. He did exactly what we wanted,” Musselman said. “His struggles at times have been on the defensive side, and he’s really worked hard to do what we want from a technique standpoint from lowering his hips. I thought he did a great job. That’s one of the reasons that we recruited him so (long), was when we played against him, we saw a lot of good things he did.

“I thought Vance did a great job and certainly he’s earned the trust of our staff and earned to move himself up in our rotation, without a doubt.”

Musselman changes pace defensively with 2-3 zone

Eric Musselman’s father, Bill, who coached extensively in the NBA, CBA and at the college level, was a big proponent of playing zone defense. Early in his first season at Arkansas, he noted that his father used to speak all over the country at coaching clinics detailing the zone he implemented.

“His matchup zone was as good as any zone anywhere,” he said. “He actually had a name for it — the hyperbolic transitional floating zone.”

Eric Musselman isn’t high on playing zone. He can probably count the number of times he has called for his college teams to drop into one on both hands — maybe one hand. But he broke out a 2-3 zone Wednesday at Tennessee.

It served as a nice change of pace and momentarily threw the Vols’ offense out of whack. Coming out of the under-16 media timeout in the second half, Tennessee missed a right-wing 3 on one possession then had a shot clock violation on its next trip down the floor.

“I love the change of defense by Eric Musselman,” Jimmy Dykes said. “The ball never got to the logo, there was no cut, there was no knife cut through the zone, there was no drive cut. Led to a poor possession by Tennessee.”

Vols coach Rick Barnes got his offense organized after that and Tennessee scored on its next three possessions against the zone, but it was an interesting tactical move by Musselman.

Razorbacks guard JD Notae was particularly active in that five-possession span, tallying three deflections. He had two prior to the shot clock violation and nearly came away with a blindside steal of forward John Fulkerson.

“We’ve been working on the zone a lot,” Musselman said. “We’ve been working on it every day in training camp. It’s part of our daily vitamins that we do every single day. They kind of figured it out and we went back to our man.

“I thought our man defense was awesome the last five minutes of the game.”

Musselman made certain he had Vance Jackson on the floor in that defensive setting, too. Having played against Jackson at New Mexico, the coach knew the forward could be effective on the back line.

I thought it was a testament to the depth and attention to detail in Musselman’s assessment of players.

“I think he does a good job of using his wingspan,” Musselman said. “Then we felt with Connor (Vanover) by the hole, that might help us a little bit.”

Breaking down Jaylin Williams’ play in SEC games

Toward the end of his press conference recapping last Saturday’s loss to Missouri, Eric Musselman was asked about forward Jaylin Williams and if he had earned more time on the floor with his play in the game.

Williams, the former Fort Smith Northside standout, finished with eight points — his most since the season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State — on 3 of 6 from the floor, three rebounds, two blocks and one steal in 17 minutes. The coach, disappointed in general with the Razorbacks’ play, did not detail what he liked about Williams’ performance.

After having time to digest the loss, Musselman was asked about Williams again days later and praised the freshman.

“I think Jaylin did a really nice job for us,” he said. “He’s done a really good job in practice. I would like to see him get more involved, because he continues to progress and get better.”

He did get more involved. For the first time in his young college career, Williams was inserted into the starting lineup at Tennessee. The results of that experiment were a mixed bag.

But we have seen of late that there is little doubt Williams has the potential to be a solid frontline piece for Arkansas.

Against the Vols, he finished with six points on 3 of 3 from the floor, two rebounds and one block in 14 minutes. Two of his scores came at the rim, one in which he took the 6-9 Fulkerson off the bounce and got a layup to go through contact.

On the other, Williams caught at the top of the key in transition and for a split second thought about launching a 3. Instead, he drove the lane and finished with his right hand.

Williams, though, turned the ball over four times in the 79-74 loss, committing a player control foul early on and making a few ill-advised passes — one that hit an unsuspecting Desi Sills on the shoulder and trickled out of bounds.

In his time on the floor in SEC play, Williams has given Arkansas great effort and energy. He brought all of the juice to the Razorbacks’ lineup in the first five minutes against Missouri, hitting the floor for loose balls twice and stripping Tigers forward Mitchell Smith in the lane as he tried to get off a short jumper.

Later in the game, he cut off a Missouri player attempting to drive baseline, forcing him to reverse course and commit a turnover. He has been great in a number of areas. He still has room to grow, though, obviously, when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll and routinely being in the correct position defensively.

With him in the lineup at Tennessee, Arkansas’ defense allowed .76 points per possession over 25 possessions, according to HoopLens analytics. That’s a great number. The Vols posted an effective field goal percentage of 36.4 in that span. Also very good.

In the 13 defensive possessions he shared the floor with Connor Vanover, Tennessee scored at a .69 PPP clip. That is encouraging, and a frontline combination the coaching staff may run with more in the future.

Offensively, Williams is tied for second on the team in scores at the rim the last two games with four. Notae leads with nine. Williams is also 5 of 5 on 2-point attempts, which includes a midrange jumper against the Vols, in SEC play.

His perimeter touch will come along — 4 of 12 this season — but I like what he’s shown on the interior. Williams has missed only one 2-point look on eight attempts to this point in the year.

Also, moving forward, keep an eye on the freshman’s ballscreens. He had at least two screen assists — picks that immediately lead to a score by the ballhandler — at Tennessee. That is an underrated and often-overlooked quality a big can bring to the floor. Williams has it.

Tracking the Razorbacks’ assistable passes

After Eric Musselman told reporters earlier this week that his players said a bit of selfishness crept in during the Missouri loss and they didn’t share the ball well, I decided to begin tracking potential assists for each player. We’ll call them assistable passes.

It did not take long to realize that Jalen Tate is far and away the leader in the clubhouse in this area. And it shouldn’t be a surprise. He initiates offense more than any other player and is more of a pass-first point guard than a scorer.

Through three SEC games, Tate has made 38 assistable passes.

His teammates, though, have knocked down only 11 of those created shots. Against Auburn and Missouri, the Razorbacks were 5 of 28 on shots immediately following a Tate pass, including 2 of 21 from 3-point range.

At Tennessee, Tate made 10 such passes and Arkansas hit six of the looks, which led to 15 points.

JD Notae is second on the team in potential assists in SEC play with 17, and he tallied a conference-play high seven against the Vols. Moses Moody is third with 10 and Desi Sills has eight — zero on Wednesday.

Vance Jackson, who played confidently and more engaged at Tennessee, made three assistable passes on Wednesday. He had one in the first two SEC games combined.

First look at Georgia

Similarly to Arkansas, the Bulldogs coasted through the nonconference portion of their schedule, winning six of their first seven games by double digits at home.

Tom Crean, who is in his third season at Georgia, has seen his team struggle on the defensive end in the early stages of conference play. The Bulldogs gave up 83 points at home to Mississippi State over the weekend then allowed 94 on the road to LSU in an overtime loss.

For the season, Georgia has allowed 95.8 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom data, which ranks 66th nationally. But in league play, that number has rocketed to 110.2, which is good for 12th in the SEC.

Offensively, the Bulldogs have been OK, but they are not valuing the basketball, turning it over at a 23% clip. Mississippi State and LSU came up with a steal on 16.8% of Georgia’s offensive possessions. That mark, as you would expect, ranks last in the conference.

Justin Kier, a 6-4 senior guard, is the Bulldogs’ top perimeter threat. He has knocked down 18 of 42 attempts from 3-point range — 6 of 13 in SEC games. PJ Horne (6-6) is 8 of 21 from deep to this point in the conference season.

Sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler steers the ship for Georgia. He has played 94.1% of the team’s minutes in league games and has the second-best assist rate in the SEC at 35.8%. He will enter Bud Walton Arena on Saturday averaging 7.7 assists per game.

Wheeler has finished with seven-plus assists in six games this season. He’s been great setting up teammates. He is, though, a bit turnover prone. Wheeler has at least four turnovers in every game.

It would also be wise for the Razorbacks to keep Toumani Camara (6-8), Andrew Garcia (6-6) and Tye Fagan (6-3) off the offensive glass. Camara has grabbed 11.8% of available misses when on the floor in SEC games, and Garcia has grabbed 11.2%.

Starting lineup-wise, Georgia is a bit all over the place. Crean has opened with five different groupings and has not used the same one in consecutive games. Wheeler, Kier, Horne and Fagan have been regulars, however.

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