Game preview: Arkansas (1-0) to host North Texas (1-0) at BWA on Saturday

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — If you’re wondering what the Arkansas Razorbacks and North Texas Mean Green could possibly have in common, the easy answer is dual demolitions of Mississippi Valley State on back-to-back nights to open their respective 2020-21 seasons.

But the parallels in those wins don’t stop there. Consider …

* Both teams eclipsed the 100-point scoring mark, and then some. The Hogs recorded their second-best scoring game ever with 142 points against the Delta Devils on Wednesday — it’s the new high-water mark for most points scored by Arkansas in a season-opener — while North Texas hung 116 points on MVSU on Thursday.

* Both teams held the Delta Devils to 62 points while running up final, astronomical winning margins — the Hogs won by 80 points and the Mean Green won by 54.

* Both teams made at least 20 three-pointers against MVSU. Arkansas shot 20-of-40 from distance to come within one more make of tying the school record for made three-pointers in a game, while the Mean Green did break their school record with 21 made triples (out of 33 attempts for 63.6%).

* Both teams had eight players (that’s eight each, or 16 combined) make at least one three-pointer against MVSU.

* Both teams were dominant on the glass as Arkansas finished plus-25 (58-33) while North Texas finished plus-19 (43-24).

Okay, that’s enough. You get the picture. But the next thing Arkansas (1-0) and North Texas (1-0) have in common is a 5 p.m. CT game on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, a matchup that will conclude a three-game multi-team exemption (MTE) event. SEC Network Plus / ESPN3 will show the game via livestream. The Hogs and Mean Green also met in November a season ago in the same venue as Arkansas held serve at home, 66-43.

But these are different teams in ’20-21. The North Texas squad that went on to win 20 games as well as the Conference USA regular-season title last year returns three starters and has added key pieces for another run at the C-USA championship, while Arkansas is replacing over 80% of its production from a season ago with 9 newcomers among its 11 scholarship players.

Scouting North Texas

North Texas head coach Grant McCasland is in his fourth season in Denton, Texas, he has a 62-41 overall record, and he led the Mean Green to a conference title in ’19-20. He relies on 6-4 senior point guard and ’19-20 C-USA Player of the Year Javion Hamlet of Memphis, who was recruited to Arkansas by the Hogs’ previous coaching staff. Hamlet had a double-double — 13 points and 11 assists — in the opener against MVSU.

UNT’s other two returning starters had big games against the Delta Devils as well. Zachary Simmons (6-10 senior forward) had 19 points on 7-of-8 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws to go with 7 rebounds and 3 assists, while James Reese (6-4 senior guard) registered a game-high-matching 21 points on 8-of-11 field goals, including 5-of-7 from 3, while also contributing 4 rebounds. Newcomer Mardrez McBride (6-2 junior guard who transferred to UNT from the junior-college ranks) scored 21 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 6-of-7 from 3, plus 3-of-4 free throws to go with 3 assists and 3 steals.

Last season, North Texas finished 10th nationally in field-goal-percentage offense (48.3%) and 27th nationally in scoring defense (63.3 points per game). While Arkansas led Division 1 teams last season in three-point field-goal-percentage defense, UNT finished 14th nationally in three-point field-goal-percentage offense (37.9%).

Razorback Rewind and a few takeaways after the season-opener

Arkansas may be replacing four starters from last season while meshing a roster dominated by newcomers, but there are plenty of veterans bringing firepower with them in their first seasons in Fayetteville.

Junior 6-1 guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro — the Hogs’ lone returning starter who averaged more than 10 points per game last season and entered ’20-21 as a preseason All SEC second team pick — was the second-leading scorer out of 8 Hogs that tailled double-figures in points in 142-62 win over MVSU on Wednesday. Sills started and had 19 points (8-of-10 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 1-of-1 from the free throw line), 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists in 20 minutes.

And Sills had lots of help. Sophomore 7-3 stretch-5 Connor Vanover, a Little Rock native who sat out last season after transferring from Cal of the Pac-12, scored a game-high 23 points (8-of-11 field goals, including 4-of-5 from 3, and 3-of-3 free throws) to go with a career-high-matching 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in 18 minutes off the bench. Senior graduate-transfer Vance Jackson, Jr. (6-9 combo forward) scored 15 points while making 4-of-6 from 3, and he contributed 7 rebounds. Two more senior grad-transfers — 6-7 combo forward Justin Smith and 6-6 combo guard Jalen Tate — combined for 25 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, and 4 steals. Junior 6-1 guard JD Notae, who sat out last season after transferring from Jacksonville of the ASUN Conference, had 13 points, a game-high 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench.

Arkansas’ quartet of highly regarded freshmen also played well against MVSU. Little Rock native Moses Moody (6-6 shooting guard / wing) started and finished with 16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists in 24 minutes, while fellow Little Rock native Khalen “KK” Robinson (6-0 point guard) had 15 points (5-of-8 field goals, including 3-of-5 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal in 18 minutes. Fort Smith native Jaylin Williams (6-10 forward / center) finished with 9 points (3-of-5 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 1-of-1 from the free throw line), a game-high 10 rebounds, and 1 assist in 20 minutes. Jacksonville native Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 combo guard) played 12 spirited minutes and contributed 5 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists.

As a team, Arkansas was not only hot from 3 but the Hogs’ overall shooting was a sparkling 48-of-86 for 55.8%. After a slow start at the free throw line (5-of-10 at halftime) the Hogs made 21 freebies while missing only 2 in the second half to finish 26-of-33 for 78.8%. In addition to the aforementioned dominance on the boards, the Razorbacks enjoyed lopsided advantages in assists (26-12), steals (11-3), and turnovers (21-7 for plus-14).

From a personnel standpoint, Arkansas played all 14 Hogs in uniform (11 on scholarship and 3 walk-ons). Head coach Eric Musselman is likely to stick mostly to an 8-9 player rotation, and a few observations have already emerged …

* Vanover has ALWAYS been a big per-40-minutes producer. Recalling his roles with Findlay Prep in Las Vegas as a high school senior in ’17-18 and with Cal as a college freshman in ’18-19, Vanover played mostly off the bench but infused clusters of baskets, boards, and blocks immediately upon entering games. For example, at Cal he averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 17.5 minutes per game — nothing earth-shattering — but his per-40-minute production was strong: 17.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks. After entering early first half against MVSU in his first game as a Razorback, Vanover immediately scored on a putback and he confidently stroked a 3 as Arkansas quickly doubled up its 5-point lead to 18-8. And Vanover didn’t let up until he had a game-high 23 points to go with a career-high-matching 8 rebounds and 3 blocks — all in just 18 minutes off the bench. That’s a per-40-minute line of 51.1 points, 17.8 rebounds, and 6.7 blocks. Just sayin’.

* The three tallest players on the team — Vanover at 7-3, Williams at 6-10, and Jackson at 6-9 — combined to make 10-of-15 from 3. With a capable corps of three-point shooters in the backcourt, Musselman is now armed with a roster than can play a true 5-out offense that will force defenses to extend which should open up the floor for driving lanes to the basket. It should also make for a more dangerous attack in transition (both primary and secondary).

* On defense the Hogs held MVSU to 23-of-72 overall field goal shooting (31.9%), but the Delta Devils did manage a repspectable 13-of-39 from 3 (33.3%), which may have exposed Musselman’s voiced concerns about his team’s collective lack of “lateral mobility.”

* The veteran presence of Smith, Tate, and Jackson stood out as all three seemed comfortable playing within their strengths while not forcing the issue. None of the trio played more than 20 minutes against MVSU on Wednesday — they didn’t have to — but expect that to change as soon as Saturday.

* The SEC’s worst rebounding team a season ago is out of the gates with a plus-25 win on the glass as the aforemetioned hot-shooting bigs pulled together to grab a collective 25 rebounds against MVSU. Trend or too soon to call? I’ll take the latter, for now.

* Notae may end up proving to be the most versatile scorer on the team, but he got off to a slow start against MVSU and didn’t record his first points as a Hog until he made a tough layup with :07 left in the first half. It was noteworthy that Notae remained patient — he took only 7 shots and probably passed up some good looks — as he grinded his way to 13 points while setting others up to score (again, he was the game’s top facilitator with 7 assists) and contributing 5 boards. Plenty of alpha-scorers fade into the background when their shots aren’t falling, but Notae had a strong overall floor game while not hoisting up shots out of frustration.

* Robinson and Williams may have played off the bench, but make no mistake: Both should be in line for meaningful roles and both could bring starter value in a similar vein to Moody. Davis is on schedule to play an integral part with the Hogs as well.

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