Hogs pick up big win before road swing
FAYETTEVILLE - For a team in Arkansas’ new shoes, the Razorbacks’ SEC opener fit perfectly.
The Razorbacks cheered the Walton Arena sold-out crowd of 19,200 cheering them on to victory last Saturday by defeating the Texas A&M Aggies 69-59.
A team that easily could have been overconfidently smitten with a surprising
11-1 nonconference start, the now 12-1 overall Razorbacks firsthand discovered SEC gimmes don’t exist.
Picked 12th to Arkansas’ 11th by SEC Media Days media predictions for the 14-team league, and unlike Arkansas not surprising with a 6-5 nonconference start, first-year Coach Buzz Williams’ Aggies visiting Walton may have seemed about as close to a SEC gimme as Arkansas could get. They weren’t. Not until Isaiah Joe’s 3-pointer supplying a 10-point lead with 1:38 left could firstyear Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks deem the game firmly in the win column. “We’re 1-0 in league play, and we played good basketball,” Musselman said postgame. “I didn’t think it was our best game of the year, but we played well enough to win. We certainly have to play a lot better in Baton Rouge than we did tonight.” The Razorbacks next play Coach Will Wade’s LSU Tigers, 9-4 overall, 1-0 in the SEC upon winning 78-64 last Saturday at Tennessee, in Wednesday’s 8 p.m. ESPNU televised game at LSU’S Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Musselman told the Razorbacks that Williams’ Aggies would not be an easy out. The Hogs played like they believed their coach, but there is still something to be said for the difference in league play even off an 11-1 nonconference concluded with a big win in Indiana over the Indiana Hoosiers.
“I think just chalk that up to conference play,” Arkansas graduate transfer guard Jimmy Whitt, the lone Razorback made postgame media available, said. “We knew they were going to come out and play hard, play well. So you’ve got to give credit to them. It was one of those games you need in conference play to show you
can grind it out, even when things may not be going how you want them to. I thought we needed it personally.”
From Williams’ 239-148 record of hard-playing teams as head coach at Marquette and Virginia Tech, and Williams’ influence with the Aggies’ effort, Musselman knew his Hogs could not expect a cakewalk.
“The tape we watched, we kind of figured it would be a grind-it-out game,” Musselman said. “There’s not a lot of transition flow when you play A&M. I thought Coach Williams did a phenomenal job of controlling tempo.”
Whitt credited the Aggies for setting the tempo until Arkansas’ improvised fiveguard game-ending lineup forced the turnovers making the difference at the finish.
“I thought we sort of played maybe at their pace today.” Whitt said. “That’s stuff that we can go back and watch film on and get better on. You have to tip your hat to them because they played hard.”
The Hogs normally would be handicapped losing their tallest starter, 6-6 senior forward Adrio Bailey to foul trouble. Bailey, hobbled by an apparently minor knee injury picking up his third foul with 18:07 left, returned at 15:57 but retired for the game’s duration amassing his fourth foul at 12:12.
Bailey has been a dirty work standout during Arkansas’ 11-1 nonconference start but this game the Razorbacks did better with him on the bench and reserve guard Jalen Harris joining starting guards Mason Jones, Desi Sills, Joe and Whitt.
“That small group was really good getting defensive stops when we needed it,” Musselman said.
All five are called guards but in reality so hybrid they are “positonless,” Buzz Williams said with admiration.
“I think they are all interchangeable,” Williams said. “I think they’re comfortable, no matter who the five are.”
The pressure they applied (A&M committed 17 turnovers to Arkansas’ 10) and the abilities of Whitt (12 points) scoring inside while Joe and Jones, a combined 9 of 23 threes as each scored 17 points, and Sills scoring 13 took its toll on the Aggies down the stretch.
“Turnover by the Aggies, made field goal by Arkansas,” Williams said of the game’s final 6:40 as A&M’S 59-54 disadvantage upped between seven and 10.
The crowd’s “insanely awesome energy,” as Musselman put it, helped the Hogs greatly.
They won’t have that crowd hitting the SEC road, but they do have the 2-1 experience from three tough nonconference road games at Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky and Indiana leading into this Wednesday’s and Saturday’s visits to LSU and Ole Miss.