Hog Food for Hog Thought: Arkansas (15-5, 3-4 SEC) at Alabama (12-8, 4-3 SEC) preview

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LITTLE ROCK — Riding a three-game SEC losing streak into their weekend tilt at Alabama, the Arkansas Razorbacks will have to solve the league’s top scoring team (82.5 points per game), top three-point shooting team (35.1%), and second-best rebounding team (41.0) to avoid a fourth straight league loss in the past couple of weeks.

Arkansas (15-5, 3-4 SEC, NCAA NET No. 38) takes on Alabama (12-8, 4-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 40) at 5 p.m. CT on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in game being televised by SEC Network.

The Razorbacks have beaten the Crimson Tide in 5 consecutive meetings spanning the least 5 seasons, last losing in March 2014 in Tuscaloosa. Arkansas is 3-3 in true road games and 4-3 in all games played away from Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Arkansas has lost its last three SEC games by an average margin of 5.2 points sandwiched around a 78-67 home win over TCU in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge last Saturday. The Razorbacks’ 79-77 home loss against South Carolina on Wednesday was the team’s second consecutive home setback.

Although Arkansas’s team scoring (74.3 points per game) is only middle of the pack in the SEC, the Hogs have three of the league’s top 10 scorers — Mason Jones (19.2 points per game is tops in the league), Isaiah Joe (16.8 points is fifth in the league), and Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (14.9 points in 10th in the league) — while the Tide have a couple of guards in Kira Lewis, Jr. and John Petty, Jr. who also rank among the top 10 scorers in the SEC.

“I’m not so sure we’ve run great all year,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said Thursday during his press conference. “I think we’ve run good in spurts. We have to have great transition defense, which we haven’t had. I don’t know why, because we don’t offensive rebound. If we don’t get back on defense, they’ve (Alabama) proven they can hang 90 on you easy.”

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Scouting Alabama: Like Musselman, Alabama’s Nate Oats is in his first-season as a head coach in the SEC after a successul run at a mid-major program — Buffalo.

A high-powered offense that excels shooting the ball from distance with a strong rebounding presence has been the foundation for a ‘Bama squad that had won four consecutive games before losing 90-76 at No. 22 LSU on Wednesday.

Sophomore 6-3 guard Kira Lewis, Jr., leads the team with 16.7 points (6th in SEC), 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.7 steals in 37.2 minutes per game while shooting 44.5% field goals, including 31.5% from three, and 82.4% free throws. Junior 6-5 guard John Petty, Jr., averages 15.8 points (9th in SEC), 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.2 steals in 33.8 minutes per game while shooting 47.2% field goals, including 46.8% from three, and 70.6% free throws.

Freshman 6-3 guard Jaden Shackelford is averaging 12.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 26.9 minutes while shooting 38.0% from the field, including 32.8% from three, and 84.1% free throws. Junior 6-7 combo forward Herbert Jones is averaging 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.1 steals in 27.4 minutes per game while shooting 47.8% field goals and 62.5% free throws. Junior 6-9 forward Alex Reese is averaging 9.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.1 blocks in 22.3 minutes per game while shooting 43.5% field goals, including 34.3% from 3, and 70.6% free throws.

Grad-transfer guard James Bolden left West Virginia to play his senior season at ‘Bama and is contributing 8.4 points in 20.2 minutes per game while shooting 37.1% field goals, including 36.8% from 3, and 82.1% free throws. Two 6-9 big men — freshman Javian Davis and junior Galin Smith — combine to average 8.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

In addition to the 82.5 points per game, 35.1% three-point shooting, and 41.0 rebounds per game, the Tide are averaging 14.5 assists (5th in SEC), 4.8 blocks (5th in SEC), 6.3 steals (9th in SEC), and 15.5 turnovers while shooting 44.0% in overall field goals (8th in SEC) and 71.3% free throws (8th in SEC). ‘Bama goes about 8-9 deep in its typical player rotation. 

“I think Coach Oates does a great job,” Musselman said. “I really like watching his teams play. I think they are fun to watch. They are one of the fastest paced teams in the country. They space the floor. They play with interchangeable parts where guys just play multiple positions. They shoot the three really well. Petty is shooting 47 percent from three. They hardy ever take mid-range shot. From an analytics standpoint they probably do a good a job as anybody with shots at the rim, free throws attempted, and 3-balls probably as good as anybody in the league. Anytime you’ve got anybody with a point guard with the speed off Kira Lewis — he’s a phenomenal player.

“I like how they play. They shoot threes, they make threes. And they play with great pace.  But anytime you have  a player that’s a great rebounder like Petty, averaging over seven boards a game, and like I said he’s shooting nearly 50 percent from three. So I think they are a really, really talented team and it will be a really challenging game.”

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Hoop Hogs limping into Tuscaloosa: Head coach Eric Musselman confirmed Thursday in addition to Isaiah Joe’s documented injury (right knee) and Desi Sills’ injury (right ankle) suffered in the loss against South Carolina that senior grad-transfer guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., effectively did not practice on Thursday due to a calf injury.

“We have three guys that are hurt,” Musselman said. “Jimmy did the least. He’s actually the guy we’re most worried about. Desi sprained his ankle, so it’s never going to feel good the next day. Isaiah did about, I don’t know, maybe 40 percent of practice today. Jimmy basically did none … he got kneed in the back of his calf. He kind of has a semi-dead foot I guess … It hit a nerve.”

That leaves the SEC’s leading scorer Mason Jones and junior guard Jalen Harris — he’s started the last two games — as the only two healthy backcourt players for the Hogs heading into the weekend game at ‘Bama. Forwards Adrio Bailey, Reggie Chaney, and Jeantal Cylla are likely to continue to play most if not all Arkansas’s frontcourt minutes.

Regardless of the limited personnel combinations that Musselman can put on the floor, he’s expressed a displeasure in several aspects of his team’s play during its three-game SEC losing streak …

* Rebounding. It’s been a problem all season, and Kentucky and Mississippi State combined for a plus-28 advantange on the glass, although the Hogs fought to a draw (36-all) against South Carolina.

* Turnovers. One of the best teams in the nation in turnover margin, Arkansas matched South Carolina with 16 giveaways.

* Free throw shooting. The Hogs have faltered at the line lately, making only 26-of-40 in the home loss against South Carolina, 6-of-11 in a road loss against Mississippi, and 20-of-30 in a home loss against Kentucky.

* Transition defense. Kentucky and South Carolina both got behind Arkansas’s defense for easy scores as both won fast-break points against the Hogs.

* Three-point shooting. A 7-of-26 effort (26.9%) against South Carolina was the latest of many underwhelming three-point shooting nights on the season for the Hogs.

“We have to have better shot selections from three,” Musselman said. “I think we’re 282nd in the country in threes, so if you’re anywhere from 150 below, you probably got to continue to make adjustments. We can’t keep taking a high volume of threes if we’re going to be, as a group, 280th in the country … If you’re in the bottom 50, it’s probably not a good idea to keep taking them. We’ve done a really good job of taking it to the basket and drawing free throws. I think that’s got to be a higher priority for us, finding a way to get to the cup and finding a way to draw free throws attempted.”

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Up next for the Razorbacks: After Alabama, Arkansas returns home to face No. 17 Auburn on Tuesday before going back on the road for a Saturday, Feb. 8, matchup against Missouri in Columbia, Mo.

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Update on Hoop Hogs’ position in various national analytics rankings: Arkansas is No. 38 in the latest NCAA NET rankings. Last season, NET replaced RPI/SOS as the NCAA tournament selection committee’s chief analytics source for helping determine NCAAT at-large bids and seeding.

As of Thursday, Arkansas was No. 35 in KenPom ratings, No. 42 in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, No. 38 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and No. 26 in the poll of polls — the Massey composite rankings — which effectively is an aggregate of 18 national rating services (including the aforementioned).

Arkansas received 3 voting “points” in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday, which was the 38th most points in the poll. 

In his most-recent projected NCAA tournament field that was updated on Friday, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Hogs slated as an NCAA tournament at-large 8-seed if the season ended today. 

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Feral Fast Takes: The Chasing Greatness Watch is on through 20 games as junior guard Mason Jones leads Arkansas in scoring at 19.2 points (1st in the SEC), rebounding at 6.4, assists at 3.6, and steals at 1.8 (5th in the SEC), and if he finishes the season leading the team in those four categories he’ll be the first Hog to do so since Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (22.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 steals) accomplished the feat in the 1978-79 Elite Eight season when he was a first-team All American … Arkansas ranks 1st in the SEC with 8.4 steals per game and 6th in the league in free throw shooting percentage at 72.5% … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (24.7%); No. 11 in turnover-margin (plus-5.1 per game); and No. 20 in turnovers forced (17.1 per game) … the Hogs have the 12th-best “adjusted defense” ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced stats … senior forward Adrio Bailey is top 10 nationally in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (No. 8 with a 9.0 score) and he’s 5th in the SEC in blocked shots at 1.8 per game. 

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