LITTLE ROCK — A new decade with a first-year head coach who’s new to the SEC — that’s the state of play for both Arkansas and Texas A&M when the two teams meet this weekend to open up league play at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks (11-1) and Aggies (6-5) are set for a 6 p.m. CT tip off Saturday in a game that is sold out and will be televised by SEC Network. The teams split their two league games a season ago with each winning on the other’s home court under coaches who were eventually let go at the end of the season. Arkansas opened up league play almost a year to the day by beating A&M, 73-71, on Jan. 5, 2019, in College Station, TX.
A win Saturday would give the Hogs — who are 16-12 all-time in SEC openers — their best start since the 2008-09 Hogs that won 12 of their first 13 games. A victory would also mean that Eric Musselman would have the best record through the first 13 games as a Razorbacks head coach in school history.
“You gotta come ready to play in conference play,” Musselman said during his Thursday press conference. “And if you don’t, you’ll get smacked pretty quick, and you’ll end up with an L. But we know come conference play, every single game if you don’t bring your A game you’re not winning. That’s pretty simple.
“You’re not going to get away with playing a B game, or you’re not going to get away playing 22 minutes and (not) the other 18 … You can’t do that, you’ve got to play for 40 minutes from here on out, and if you don’t you’re not going to win. And certainly shots aren’t going to fall for 40 minutes, but if you don’t follow the gameplan, if you don’t defend at a high level for 40 minutes, quite simply any game from here on out we’re not winning.”
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Scouting Texas A&M: Led by first-year head coach Buzz Williams — who authored successful runs at Marquette and most recently Virginia Tech of the ACC — the Aggies come to Fayetteville enjoying a three-game winning streak, including a home win over Oregon State of the Pac-12 on Dec. 21. Prior to the recent success, A&M suffered a 4-game losing streak (Harvard, Temple, Fairfield, and Texas) in neutral-site games. The trip to Fayetteville marks the Aggies’ first true road game of the season.
It’s a veteran A&M lineup led by 6-9 senior forward / center Josh Nebo, who is averaging 27.9 minutes, 11.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks while shooting 67.2% from the field and 61.5% from the free throw line. Junior 6-7 small forward / wing Javion Flagg is averaging 31.2 minutes, 11.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.3 steals while shooting 43.3% field goals (including 36.2% from 3) and 63.0% free throws. Junior 6-4 guard Jay Jay Chandler is averaging 23.3 minutes and 8.0 points on 35.3% field goals (including 31.6% from 3) and 73.7% free throws. Senior 6-3 guard Wendell Mitchell is averaging 25.3 minuts and 7.1 points on 25.8% field goals (including 21.4% from 3) and 69.0% free throws. Junior 6-5 wing Quenton Jackson is averaging 22.7 minutes and 6.5 points while shooting 30.4% field goals (including 16.7% from 3) and 71.4% free throws.
As a team, A&M has eight players averaging at least 15.2 minutes of playing time per game. The Aggies are one of the worst offensive teams in the country, especially in scoring (57.7 points per game) and 3-point shooting (23.5%) — two areas that Arkansas’s defense has been among the best in the country as the Hogs are holding teams to 59.8 points per game (18th nationally) and 21.9% shooting from 3 (tops in the nation).
A&M also averages 34.7 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 7.0 steals, 3.8 blocks, and 15.1 turnovers per game. The Ags are 38.1% in overall field goal shooting and 67.0% in free throw shooting.
“They’re physical, they play hard, they rebound,” Musselman said. “They have a big guy inside, Nebo, who can offensive rebound. They’re a great offensive rebounding team. I think those are their strengths. Flagg can score the ball at the 3, and then if they want to play small they can move him to the 4. I think those are things we’ve talked about over the last few days.
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Hoop Hogs coming home for their first game since mid-December: Like Texas A&M, Arkansas is on a 3-game winning streak. The Hogs went 2-0 playing away from BWA in their last two games, both times using late rallies for come-from-behind wins.
The most recent was on Sunday at Indiana as the Razorbacks imposed their will in the final 8 minutes of the game to erase a 9-point deficit with a 19-3 run that provided a 71-64 win over the Hoosiers (now 11-2) in front of nearly 15,000 fans at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.
Eight days earlier (on Dec. 21), Arkansas overcame a late 8-point deficit for a 72-68 win over Valparaiso in front of 15,630 fans at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. Prior to that, Arkansas enjoyed its best offensive game of the season in a 98-79 home win over Tulsa on Dec. 14, which was the last time the Hogs played at BWA.
Leading scorers and 6-5 guards Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe both scored at least 20 points in each contest during the current three-game victory march.
Joe was named co-SEC Player of the Week on Monday after his 24-point, 5-rebound performance in the win over Indiana. He scored 18 second-half points for the second consecutive game, and 15 of those were part of the Hogs’ final 32 points. Joe made 6 three-pointers (including 4 in the second half), and he was 4-of-4 from the free throw line (all of his freebies came in the final 27 seconds to ice the game). Joe scored 20 points against Tulsa and had 21 points against Valparaiso. He’s averaging 17.4 points per game (second on the team, and fourth in the SEC) and he’s second in the league in made three-pointers (45).
Jones, twice named SEC POW this season, had 4 three-pointers and finished with 20 points against the Hoosiers, including two made triples in the closing minutes that flipped a one-point Arkansas deficit into a five-point Hogs lead. Jones scored a career-high 41 points against Tulsa and finished with 20 points against Valparaiso. He’s averaging 19.7 points (leads the team, and second in the SEC) and 6.2 rebounds (leads the team).
Joe and Jones, plus 6-2 guard Desi Sills’ two made 3-pointers, gave Arkansas a season-best 12 made 3-pointers against Indiana.
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Up next for Arkansas: After Texas A&M, the Razorbacks are back on the road for SEC games at LSU on Wednesday, Jan. 8, and at Ole Miss on Saturday, Jan. 11. The Hogs will then return home for games against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18.
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SEC Power Rankings: The first of many league power polls to come …
1. Auburn (12-0) … No. 8 NCAA NET, No. 14 KenPom, No. 7 Sagarin, No. 12 ESPN BPI … Bruce Pearl lifted the lowly Tigers from the bottom of the SEC to co-league champs two years ago, a Final Four last season, and now one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the country.
2. Kentucky (9-3) … No. 40 NCAA NET, No. 15 KenPom, No. 21 Sagarin, No. 27 ESPN BPI … wins over Michigan State and Louisville make a bigger overall impression of the strength of this team than losses against Evansville and Utah do to encourage skepticism … the ‘Cats open up league play by hosting Missouri on Saturday.
tie 3. Arkansas (11-1) … No. 24 NCAA NET, No. 32 KenPom, No. 32 Sagarin, No. 36 ESPN BPI … undersized and lacking depth, the Hogs appeared to have more endurance and will power in recent close wins away from home over Indiana and Valparaiso.
tie 3. Florida (8-4) … No. 55 NCAA NET, No. 24 KenPom, No. 36 Sagarin, No. 14 ESPN BPI … preseason SEC Player of the Year pick and senior graduate-transfer Kerry Blackshear, Jr., has lived up to expectations, but the Gators have had a few bumps against a good non-conference schedule … the Gators host Alabama on Saturday.
5. LSU (8-4) … No. 36 NCAA NET, No. 41 KenPom, No. 37 Sagarin, No. 28 ESPN BPI … guard play has let the Tigers down at times this season, but look for their talented and veteran backcourt led by Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart to take a step up in league play … a road game aganst Tennessee on Saturday is an early sexy SEC matchup.
tie 6. Mississippi State (9-3) … No. 80 NCAA NET, No. 54 in KenPom, No. 57 in Sagarin, No. 34 ESPN BPI … opening at home Saturday against Auburn is a huge opportunity for the Bulldogs, and certainly the recent return of guard Nick Weatherspoon will help complement the interior play of sophomore Reggie Perry, who has looked worthy of All SEC first-team honors through the first third of the season.
tie 6. Tennessee (8-4) … No. 67 NCAA NET, No. 45 KenPom, No. 61 Sagarin, No. 46 ESPN BPI … life without the Admiral (Schofield) and Grant (Williams) has not been easy against a difficult non-conference slate as the Vols have lost 4 of their last 7 games, and a home game Saturday against LSU brings added pressure to a team looking to get back on the winning track to start league play.
8. Missouri (8-4) … No. 52 NCAA NET, No. 49 KenPom, No. 62 Sagarin, No. 50 ESPN BPI … a 3-game losing streak has been trumped by a more-recent 4-game winning streak that includes a road win over Temple and a neutral-site win over Illinois, and the Tigers can make it five in a row with an upset victory over Kentucky on Saturday.
9. Ole Miss (9-3) … No. 50 NCAA NET, No. 86 KenPom, No. 81 Sagarin, No. 94 ESPN BPI … the Rebels went 1-2 during a tough road stretch against Memphis, Penn State, and Oklahoma State, and they’ll get another road test Saturday against ranked Wichita State with a shot at a 5-game winning streak.
10. Georgia (9-3) … No. 66 NCAA NET, No. 73 KenPom, No. 73 Sagarin, No. 107 ESPN BPI … the ‘Dogs just might have the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft in freshman guard Anthony Edwards, but aside from taking some quality non-conference road lumps Georgia has not picked up a win against anybody of note … upcoming opportunities include ranked Memphis (on Saturday) and Kentucky (next week).
11. Alabama (7-5) … No. 60 NCAA NET, No. 64 KenPom, No. 48 Sagarin, No. 84 ESPN BPI … the Tide have won five of their last six with the only stumble on the road by two points against a good Penn State sqaud, and ‘Bama travels to Florida on Saturday to begin SEC play.
12. South Carolina (8-5) … No. 129 NCAA NET, No. 104 KenPom, No. 98 Sagarin, No. 112 ESPN BPI … double-digit-margin road wins against Clemson and Top 10 / defending national champion Virigina were followed by a home loss to Stetson, go figure … the Gamecocks do not play Saturday but open their SEC slate at home against Florida on Tuesday.
13. Vanderbilt (8-4) … No. 124 NCAA NET, No. 131 KenPom, No. 115 Sagarin, No. 128 ESPN BPI … after starting the season 5-1 the ‘Dores have split their last six games, and they’ll host SMU on Saturday before beginning SEC play next week.
14. Texas A&M (6-5) … No. 191 NCAA NET, No. 165 KenPom, No. 150 Sagarin, No. 219 ESPN BPI … the Aggies have earned cellar-dwellar status for now, but a win over the Hogs on Saturday in Fayetteville would mark a fourth-straight win and 1-0 beginning to league play.
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Feral Fast Takes: Arkansas was 1 of only 19 power-5-conference teams (out of 65 total) to play at least three true road games in non-conference play … as of Thursday, Arkansas was one of only five NCAA Division 1 teams not to have a loss in regulation … Arkansas’s defense is Top 20 nationally in several statistical categories: No. 1 in 3-point field goal defense (21.9%); No. 16 in turnovers forced (18.3 per game); No. 18 in steals (9.7 per game); No. 18 in scoring defense (59.8 points per game); and No. 20 in turnover-margin (plus-4.8 per game) … the Hogs have the 8th-best “adjusted defense” ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced stats … Arkansas received 19 votes in the most-recent Associated Press Top 25 poll, effectively ranking the Hogs at No. 36 in the country … senior forward Adrio Bailey is top 5 nationally in a couple of advanced defensive metrics according to Sports-Reference.com — he’s No. 2 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (10.1), and he’s No. 4 with a Defensive Rating of 75.8 … Arkansas is 7-5 against Texas A&M since the Aggies entered the SEC in 2012-13, and the Hogs are 102-56 all-time against the Aggies going back to when the two teams were members of the old Southwest Conference.