SEC tournament profile: Arkansas vs. Vanderbilt

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LITTLE ROCK — While winning five games in five days may seem like too much heavy lifting for an Arkansas Razorbacks squad short on depth and size, a three-game run at the SEC tournament that begins Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., just might spruce up the Hogs’ postseason resume enough to be worthy of an NCAA tournament at-large bid when those are handed out on Sunday.

Postseason starts tonight night as 11-seed Arkansas (19-12, 7-11 SEC) plays surging 14-seed Vanderbilt (10-20, 3-15 SEC) with opening tip expected to be around 8:30 CT in a game being televised by SEC Network. It’s the second of two opening-night SECT tilts as 12-seed Ole Miss takes on 13-seed Georgia at 6 p.m. CT.

For the first time since the SEC expanded to 14 teams (2013) and added Wednesday SECT games for the league’s Nos. 11-14 seeds, the Hogs find themselves playing on opening night. It diminishes the likelihood of a necessary five-game run to win the SECT championship on Sunday and the subsequent automatic bid to the NCAAT, but maybe Arkansas can get enough done in 3 or 4 games to get an at-large invite to the Big Dance when the NCAAT selection committee anounces the 68-team field Sunday night.

Arkansas comes in with a respectable No. 47 spot in the NCAA NET rankings, and by adding three wins at the SECT — over Vandy, South Carolina (has a bye to Thursday’s second round), and LSU (has a bye to Friday’s quarterfinals) — the Hogs would have: a) 22 wins; b) at least 4, maybe 5 Quad-1 wins; c) 7 wins away from home (4 true road wins of which two are Quad-1 wins, and 3 neutral-site wins of which one would be a Quad-1 win); d) 10 wins against SEC competition; e) a 6-3 record in the 9 games since the return of star guard Isaiah Joe; f) a 12-1 non-conference record, including 2-1 on the road and 3-0 against high-major opponents; and g) an NCAA Net ranking that would likely move into the top 40.

That’s what an NCAAT resume looks like, but even if its not enough a fourth win in the SECT semifinals on Saturday likely would be. In other words, it’s not a certainty the Razorbacks need a 5-game run for the automatic NCAAT bid that goes to the SECT champion.

As for the odds that Arkansas can win 3 straight games — for now put aside notions of winning 4 or 5 in a row — the Hogs have not won 3 consecutive games since December when they had a week to rest and prepare between contests leading up to wins over Tulsa, Valparaiso, and Indiana. And only twice since December has Arkansas managed to win 2 consecutive games. 

While fans and media may be peeking ahead trying to figure out the math and a path to an at-large NCAAT bid, Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman leads his first Razorbacks team into the postseason with Vandy-focused blinders on.

“To me, we have a one-game season,” Musselman said during his press conference on Monday. “It’s utterly insane to talk about four games in four days or five, I mean that’s ludicrous. We have one game, and if we don’t win that one game, talking about anything beyond Wednesday is senseless. We have a one-game season. If we are able to advance and win that game, we’ll get ready for the next game and then so on and so forth. 

“To do anything other than figure out how to beat Vanderbilt would not be very smart. That’s the same thing for anybody that plays on Wednesday. It’s the same thing for anybody that plays on Thursday. If you’re thinking about anything else, then good luck to you.”

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Scouting Vanderbilt: Winless in the SEC for nearly two seasons, Vandy has won three league games including two consecutive (last week against NCAAT Bubble teams Alabama and South Carolina). Plus, the Nashville-based ‘Dores will be playing in their backyard against the Hogs, effectively making it a home game for Vandy. Arkansas won at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, 75-55, when the two teams met in January.

Like the Razorbacks, the Commodores are driven by their backcourt. All-league guard Saban Lee (18.2 points, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 48% field-goal shooting) and freshman guard Scottie Pippen, Jr. (11.9 points, 3.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 steals, and 36.3% three-point shooting) are the headliners with guards Maxwell Evans and Jordan Wright along with forwards Dylan Dsu, Ejike Obinna, and Braelee Albert providing supporting roles.

With the loss of star guard Aaron Nesmith early in league play, Vandy started 0-8 in the SEC — that included its 20-point loss against Arkansas — before breaking through with an upset win at home over LSU in February. Since then, the ‘Dores have been competitive with the payoff coming in the form of their current 2-game winning streak.

“I think their confidence,” Musselman said of the difference between this version of Vandy versus the one his team defeated in mid-January. “Like anybody that knows (Vandy head coach Jerry) Stackhouse, he’s a really, really great competitor. I actually coached his brother, Tony Dawson.  Stack’s done a really good job. There’s not anybody in the SEC that wants to play Vanderbilt right now, I can tell you that. They’ve played well the last two games. They’ve had a lot of games single-digit losses. The Georgia game, they had that game won. 

“Pippen for a freshman does what you want a freshman to do which is keep getting better. And then you look at the free throws attempted between Saben Lee and Pippen. And Maxwell Evans, he’s a guy that has had huge halves. He and Saben Lee are guys that can get you for 15 in a half. And then you look at the scoring. They played LSU, 99-90, the same score that we had. So they are scoring the ball a lot better than when we saw them earlier. And as we all know you throw out any game that’s happened in the past because it’s completely and utterly irrelevant.”

Stackhouse talked about his team’s positive bounce after stringing together back-to-back wins last week.

“We’re really excited to be coming in off a good win on the road at Alabama and then come back at home against a tough South Carolina team,” Stackhouse said during a Monday teleconference. “So we’re excited about being in Nashville, playing in Bridgestone, and having a little momentum going into the tournament … We’re two different teams. From the start of the year obviously we were built a lot around Aaron Nesmith. He went down in the first game of the conference against Auburn so we had to kind of revamp and who we were going to be and put a lot more emphasis on Saben Lee being our primary scorer. And the whole time developing a really young corps of freshmen that had to take on a much bigger roles than most freshmen hopefully would have to take on going forward for our program. But those guys have really grown and prevailed with a good understanding of how we need to play to be successful. Individually they’ve gotten better with their own personal development.”

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Time for Hog guards to rise up in unison: For Arkansas — coming off a 77-69 loss at Texas A&M in the regular-season finale — the Hogs typically go as the backcourt quartet of Joe, Mason Jones, Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and Desi Sills go. 

The Razorbacks are 3-2 since the return of Joe from injury, but a team that hung its hat on playing a grinding defensive brand of basketball has all of a sudden seen splippage on the defensive end of the floor. Arkansas has given up 88.7 points per game in its last three outings. Still, the league’s worst rebounding team continues to lead the nation in three-point field goal defense (27.3%) and is ranked 9th nationally in turnover margin (plus-4.6 per game).

Arkansas is 4-8 in true road games and 1-0 in a neutral-site matchup (against Valpo in December in the annual game played in North Little Rock, which is really more like a home game for the Hogs). So, the SECT effectively represents Arkansas’s first true neutral-site opportunity of the season.

Jones, named SEC Co-Player of the Year by the Associated Press on Tuesday and first-team All SEC by both the AP and the league coaches, comes in as the SEC’s leading scorer (22.0 points per game) to go with being the Hogs’ leader in rebounds (5.4), assists (3.3), and steals (1.6). Jones has a league-best nine 30-points-or-more scoring games, including 7 in Arkansas’s last 12 SEC games. The Hogs are 3-6 in SEC games when Jones scores 30 or more points, including 3-4 this season.

Joe — he missed six games (including five SEC contests when the Hogs went 0-5) and struggled in five others while playing injured — has averaged 20.4 points per game since rejoining the team against Missouri on February 22. He’s been healthy for only 8 of the Hogs’ 18 SEC games, but in those 8 — the first three of league play and the most-recent five games — he averaged 20.8 points while shooting 32-of-84 from 3 for 38.1%. On the season, his 16.8 points per game ranks seventh in SEC scoring, he leads the league in made three-pointers (90), and he’s third in the league in free-throw percentage at 88.8% on 79-of-89 shooting. He also averages 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.4 steals.

“I think Mason is one of the best players in the league for sure,” Musselman said. “Obviously coaching him and being a part of the Razorback family you have your opinion on how well he’s playing. He’s done a great job offensively carrying us during stretches. Isaiah has had stretches where he’s carried us. You always want your players to be recognized.”

Whitt is averaging 14.1 points per game (13th in SEC), 5.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.4 steals. He scored a career-high 30 points in Arkansas’s home win over Vandy in mid-Janaury. Sills has played off the bench in the Hogs’ last 5 games and is averaging 10.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.0 steals on the season. Fourth-year junior guard Jalen Harris has played heavy minutes mostly in a reserve role.

Sophomore forward Ethan Henderson recently joined senior forward Adrio Bailey in the starting lineup as Musselman and the Hogs have been searching for frontline production and consistency. Sophomore Reggie Chaney and senior-grad transfer Jeantal Cylla have also contributed. 

Needing at least 3 wins, maybe 4, and with a shot of winning all the SECT marbles in 5 games in 5 days, Musselman sees positives in the mix while acknowledging some unfamiliar territory taking his first Arkansas team into the postseason.

“The whole format is a little different,” he said. “When you’ve coached a team two, three times, they know what’s coming but this is new for this group with me so, you know, it’s going to be new for all of us. I do like that (Bridgestone) arena though, I‘ll tell you that. We (Nevada, where Musselman previously coached) won some games there before. That was the year we went to the Sweet 16. It’s my favorite building … There’s more than one polo in my bag right now.”

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