Game preview: Arkansas (16-6, 4-5 SEC) at Missouri (10-12, 2-7 SEC) set for 2:30 CT tip on Sat

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Jimmy Whitt vs Vanderbilt – Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — Both Arkansas and Missouri will have significant lineup question marks due to injuries when they square off for a weekend SEC battle in Columbia, Mo.

The Razorbacks (16-6, 4-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 37) take on the Tigers (10-12, 2-7 SEC, NCAA NET No. 99) at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday in a game that will be televised by SEC Network.

For Arkansas, it’s supposed to be a homecoming for senior grad-transfer and Columbia, Mo., native Jimmy Whitt, Jr. But Whitt, the Hogs’ third-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game and second-leading rebounder at 5.0 boards per game, is dealing with back issues while coming off a scoreless game (on 0-of-7 field goal shooting) in the Hogs’ 79-76 overtime loss against No. 11 Auburn on Tuesday.

“His back has been bothering him for sure,” said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, whose team is already playing without second-leading scorer Isaiah Joe who is out indefinitely following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Tuesday. “He’s (Whitt’s) been in getting a ton of treatment. He will not practice (Thursday). He will not even suit (Thursday). So we’re hopeful he can bounce back and have a good game and are anticipating that he’ll play but until we practice (Friday). I don’t know how much he’ll be able to do … He did get an MRI, too, this morning (Thursday).”

Mizzou also has a player questionable to play. Mark Smith, a 6-5 junior guard who’s the Tigers’ second-leading scorer (10.9 points per game), has missed the last two games due to a lower back injury, although Musselman believes Smith will be back in the lineup on Saturday. And big man Jeremiah Tilmon (6-11 junior) had played in only one league game due to a stress fracture in his left foot before returning to the lineup earlier this week, finishing with 2 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block in 11 minutes in the Tigers’ 68-51 road loss against Texas A&M.

“It looks like Missouri is probably going to be as healthy as they’ve been in a long time with 23, Tilmon back playing,” Musselman said. “From everything we’ve been studying it looks like (Mark) Smith will play as well, No. 13 who is their best perimeter shooter. So two teams that are hungry for a win.”

Arkansas has won only two of its last six games, while Mizzou has wonly only once in its last six games.

A silver lining for the Razorbacks is their record away from home: 4-3 in true road games, including 2-2 in SEC road games, and 5-3 in all games played away from Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

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Scouting Missouri: In his third season as head coach, Cuonzo Martin has dealt with Tigers injuries along the way each year. And though the overall and league records reveal the team’s struggles, Mizzou does boast wins over an Illinois team that is currently ranked 20th nationally, Florida, and a come-from-behind win over Georgia on Jan. 28 after trailing by 20 points.

Junior 6-3 guard Dru Smith, a transfer from Evansville, leads the team with 11.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.1 steals in 31.2 minutes per game. Junior 6-5 guard Mark Smith could return to the lineup after missing two games with a lower back injury and is averaging 10.9 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 39.9% from the field, including 37.8% from 3, and 74.5% free throws. Junior 6-11 center Jeremiah Tilmon is averaging 8.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game while shooting 61.4% field goals.

Sophomore guards Xavier Pinson (6-2) and Javon Pickett (6-5) are combining to average 15.1 points per game. Pinson averages 2.5 assists while Pickett contributes 3.9 rebounds per game. The Tigers go about 9 players deep in their rotation, including 6-9 junior and Van Buren native Mitchell Smith, who’s averaging 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per game. Guard Torrence Watson, forward Kobe Brown, and center Reed Nikko average between 14 and 18 minutes per game.

As a team, Missouri ranks near the bottom in the league in most statistical categories: 65.3 points per game (13th SEC), 34.1 rebounds (12th SEC), 11.6 assists (12th SEC), 7.2 steals (5th SEC), 3.0 blocks (13th SEC), and 14.5 turnovers while shooting 40.4% field goals (13th SEC), including 30.5% from 3 (13th SEC), and 77.4% free throws (2nd SEC).

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Hogs’ junior point-forward Mason Jones having a record scoring run: Jones has scord 34, 30, and 40 points in Arkansas’s last three games, becoming the first player in school history to have back-to-back-to-back 30-points-or-more outings. The SEC’s leading scorer (20.7 points per game) is the first league player to accomplish that feat since South Carolina guard Devan Downey did it 20 years ago.

On Monday, Jones — he has two 40-points-or-more games this season — was named the league’s Co-Player of the Week, which makes him the only SEC player with at least three player of the week honors this season.

“What Mason’s done is he’s played as well as anyone in the country of late,” Musselman said, “And again it’s how hard he’s worked and I think he’s improved in so many areas.  We’ve talked about it in the past after games and stuff. His ability as a ball-handler, his ability in one-on-one situations. His ability to draw free throws attempted. And to be honest with you it’s not often that in a college game a player would score 40 points and you would say he probably passes up two or three shots where he should have been shot ready.  And the one pass he threw to some of our fans across court, even that one I wish he would have shot.”

As good as Jones has been, Arkansas is only 1-4 in SEC games when he scores 30 or more points. In the lone win, 82-78 at Alabama last Saturday, Jones got support from Whitt (26 points), junior guard Jalen Harris (11 points), and sophomore forward Reggie Chaney (8 points and 11 rebounds). 

“Look, when we had kind of figured out who we were and I thought we figured out our late-game packages and then roles were clearly defined, we had the (Isaiah Joe) injury,” Musselman explained. “And so now we are kind of reinventing ourselves. All of a sudden now we’re playing two bigs. Because of the makeup of our team we can’t play five guards anymore. We don’t have five guards to even throw out there which was kind of a mismatch for other people that we could do for short stretches. We don’t even have the ability to put five guards out there. And then when you look at Adrio (bailey), Reggie, Ethan (Henderson), (Jeantal) Cylla — they all are kind of fours and fives.

“And so offensively we’re going to add some new plays today (Thursday). We added three new plays prior to the Auburn game. We’ll probably add another three or four today. We’ll probably add another one or two tomorrow (Friday). Because we have to add different plays based on who we are right now. Because Isaiah — you think about the offense we ran with him — he was so heavily involved in stuff. And so now we’ve got to change and we’ve got to tinker and  … you know … yeah we need somebody to step up.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Missouri, Arkansas goes back on the road for a Tuesday matchup against Tennessee in Knoxville before returning home to host Mississippi State on Saturday, Feb. 15.

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