Last Saturday was not the perfect storm. Granted, no one really expected the Arkansas Razorbacks to lose to Mississippi State in Walton Arena, but it happened.
The Bulldogs’ only road wins before last week were against Minnesota, which is 7-16, Jackson State, 9-17, and South Carolina, 9-16.
Arkansas had one loss at home and that was to No. 1 Alabama.
Maybe the Razorbacks had a little hangover from beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but that didn’t come from their coach. Every time Eric Musselman beats the Wildcats he follows it with another victory.
No doubt there was an adjustment to have Nick Smith Jr. back after missing the last 12 games and a total of 20 games this season.
He didn’t appear to be a distraction, but he wasn’t on top of his game either. No one, not even LeBron James, can miss weeks of practice time and be ready for prime time.
State’s first-year coach Chris Jans didn’t hesitate to throw a zone defense at the Razorbacks, and instead of responding by pounding it inside with the Mitchell twins and Jalen Graham, the Hogs shot jumpers.
Of their 48 shots, exactly half were outside the paint, and 18 of those were three-pointers of which they made just four. They were 7 of 24 on shots of 10 feet or more.
That’s not going to win many SEC games, and Musselman has made that point numerous times this season.
There were a couple of positives that came out of the game. The Bulldogs led by as much as 16 in the second half, and the Razorbacks cut it to three with 1:22 to play.
The play of freshman Anthony Black continues to improve on both ends of the court, as he finished with 23 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists against the Bulldogs.
State was also uncharacteristically hot on threes, making six of 10.
Arkansas’ defense was much better in the second half, and after making 14 of 27 shots in the first half the Bulldogs were just 13 of 30 in the second half.
The loss stung, but it didn’t really hurt the Razorbacks. The problem is the six games they have remaining are the toughest stretch they’ve had this season.
It starts tonight at Texas A&M, in a hostile environment against a team which has clawed its way into sole possession of second place in the SEC, two games behind Alabama and two ahead of Tennessee.
The Aggies’ only home loss was on Dec. 20 to Wofford, but A&M is not the same team it was then.
Buzz Williams went with a bigger line-up installing Henry Coleman III, and the 6-8 junior has become the team’s leading rebounder.
Since the line-up change, the Aggies are 12-2 and the only losses were to Kentucky and Arkansas, both on the road.
In their last meeting just 15 days ago the Razorbacks won 81-70, but Coleman had 18 points and 15 rebounds, so he will have to be dealt with.
As will the three-quarters press Williams loves, as well as the Aggies dropping back into a zone.
The Razorbacks need to protect the ball/ They are averaging 13.6 turnovers in SEC play, and that is not something Musselman teams do, especially allowing seven steals a game.
What took the wind out of Arkansas’ sails last Saturday was an eight-minute drought of no field goals. Do that tonight and it will be over early.
So shot selection will be critical tonight. That, sharp passes and continue to find the high percentage shot. Arkansas averages 13.5 assists on 27.1 field goals per game. That’s a plus.
The Razorbacks must listen to their coaches and be all-out on defense while still playing smart.
Last Saturday was a minor setback that can be corrected.