LITTLE ROCK — The last time the Arkansas Razorbacks were riding a three-game SEC losing streak they picked up a critical road win, 82-78, over Alabama. Three consecutive league losses later the Hogs find themselves in familiar territory with the Mississippi State Bulldogs arriving in Fayetteville for a weekend matchup between two teams still in the hunt for NCAA tournament at-large bids that will be handed out in a few weeks.
Arkansas (16-8, 4-7 SEC, NCAA NET No. 43) hosts Mississippi State (15-9, 6-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 51) at noon CT on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in a game being televised by SEC Network.
The Bulldogs have defeated the Hogs in their last five meetings, including a 78-71 win in Starkville, Miss., on Jan. 22. In that game, the Hogs suffered only 7 turnovers and dominated points in the paint (46-24) despite losing yet another rebounding battle (41-31). Conversely, the Razorbacks made only 6-of-11 from the free throw line (54.5%) including two misses on front-ends of one-and-one opportunities, while Mississippi State shot 27-of-31 at the foul line (87.1%).
That loss is part of a current eight-game stretch in which Arkansas has managed only two wins with second-leading scorer Isaiah Joe either playing with significant physical limitations or not playing at all (he’s missed four games in that stretch, including the last three as he continues to rehabilitate from a Feb. 4 arthroscopic procedure to his right knee).
In Arkansas’s first seven losses of the season, the Hogs’ combined losing margin was 30 points — works out to a 4.3-point margin per game. But in their most recent outing at Tennessee on Tuesday, the Hogs stumbled out of the gates to trail by 17 points at halftime en route to an 82-61 debacle in Knoxville, Tenn.
Like Arkansas, Mississippi State is coming off a blowout loss on Tuesday — 83-58 at Ole Miss. But the Bulldogs have won 6 of their last 8 SEC games after starting 0-3 in league play.
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Scouting Mississippi State: Rebounding is a strength of the Bulldogs — 38.5 boards per game ranks 4th in the SEC, and a plus-8.0 margin per game on the glass ranks 10th in the nation. It starts with the league’s top rebounder and fourth leading scorer, 6-10 forward Reggie Perry (17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds) who is on the short list of players being discussed as a postseason SEC Player of the Year candidate.
Perry also averages 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks in his 30.4 minutes per game while shooting 50.9% field goals, inlcuding 32.3% from 3, and 75.7% free throws. Versatile 6-7 sophomore wing Robert Woodard II is averaging 33.6 minutes, 11.7 points, 7.1 rebounds (9th in SEC), 1.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks while shooting 50% field goals, including 46.3% from 3, and 65.6% free throws. Long and athletic Abdul Ado (6-11 junior) is averaging 27.4 minutes, 5.5 points, 6.8 rebounds (12th in SEC), and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 56.8% field goals and 62.0% free throws.
In the backcourt, 6-4 senior guard Tyson Carter is averaging 29.4 minutes, 12.9 points, and 3.2 assists while shooting 36.4% field goals, including 29.6% from 3, and 85.7% free throws. Junior 6-2 guard Nick Weatherspoon is averaging 30.0 minutes, 11.7 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 42.2% field goals, including 19% from 3, and 82.5% free throws.
The Bulldogs are getting siginificant contributions from freshmen guards DJ Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar., who combine to average 15.1 points per game while being viable threats shooting the ball from distance.
As a team, Mississippi State is averaging 73.2 points, 13.5 assists, 5.5 steals, 4.9 blocks, and 13.9 turnovers while shooting 46.1% from the field, including 33.2% from 3, and 74.9% free throws.
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Hoop Hogs in another must-win situation:Arkansas is down to 8 healthy scholarship players, and really only 6 of those have played significant roles over the course of the season. Regardless of the roster limitations and subsequent hurdles, the Hogs are in a spot where they need to piece together multiple wins with only 7 more games to play in the regular season if reaching the NCAA tournament in March is to become a reality.
After two losses on the road last week (Missouri then Tennessee), a return home is not necessarily a safe haven as Arkansas has lost its last three league games played at Bud Walton Arena.
With Joe (16.0 points per game is second-best on the team and 9th in the SEC) out indefinitely, the heavy lifting remains in the hands of junior guard Mason Jones, who despite making only 1-of-10 shots while scoring 9 points against the Vols on Tuesday still leads the SEC in scoring at 20.0 points per game.
Jones and the rest of the Hogs sorely miss Joe’s presence at both ends of the floor. On offense, Joe was not only a scorer but because of his effective range from NBA three-ball distance he forced teams to account for his every move with a defender staying glued to him, meaning one less body to help off when Jones, Jimmy Whitt, Jr., or Desi Sills drove to the paint and to the basket. Defensively, Joe was one of the top stoppers in the SEC.
And because Joe is economical in finding his own offense (i.e. minimal dribbling to get into a good shot), the ball movement was crisper and spacing was better than what is has been during the current skid. For a team that was one of the best in the country in turnover margin, the Hogs broke even in giveaways last week against Mizzou and Tennessee (28-28 in the two games combined) while getting crushed on the glass (92-64 in the two games combined).
Whitt scored 34 points combined in those two road losses, but only managed a collective 10-of-31 field goal shooting (32.3%) after shooting better than 52% from the field on the season prior to those games.
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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Mississippi State on Saturday, Arkansas goes back on the road to play Florida on Tuesday before returning home for a Saturday, Feb. 22, matchup against Missouri at BWA.