FAYETTEVILLE — These Razorbacks aren’t the only team in Knoxville, Tenn. tonight trying to set aright what bewildered them last Saturday.
Those Tennessee Volunteers hosting Arkansas tonight come into this game equally determined to atone for what miffed them at home this Saturday past.
Arkansas, 9-1 overall, 1-1 in the SEC, and Tennessee, 7-1, 1-1, clash at 6 CST tonight on ESPN2 at the Vols’ Boling-Thompson Arena.
Both breezed unbeaten into SEC home games last Saturday only to stumble.
At Walton Arena Arkansas lost, 81-68 to Missouri. Given Mizzou last Saturday ranked Associated Press 12th nationally, Coach Eric Musselman’s AP unranked Hogs losing wouldn’t be deemed a major upset even while home court favored.
However that Arkansas never led, hit but 19 of 71 shots including making 3 of 23 layups, against a team blocking just one shot, greatly concerns Musselman. Especially knowing that Tennessee trounced Mizzou, 73-53 last Wednesday in Columbia, Mo. and that last Saturday’s Arkansas misery vs. Mizzou marked the first of a projected three to six weeks injured ankle absence of Arkansas starting forward Justin Smith.
Smith, an athletic 6-7, is Arkansas’ leading rebounder. He was sorely missed last Saturday. Mizzou outrebounded Arkansas, 51-36. Mizzou center Jeremiah Tilmon dominated the paint with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
Meanwhile Coach Rick Barnes’ Vols, the SEC’s highest ranked team at No. 7 last week and so impressive massacring Mizzou last week in Columbia, last Saturday tumbled, 71-63 in Knoxville to the unranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jaden Springer, the 6-6 Vols freshman and Barnes’ co-sixth man along with freshman guard Keon Johnson, sprained an ankle and is questionable for tonight’s game.
Though both teams obviously tip off tonight with some luster lost, the basketball gods apparently remain confident in both.
In the NET rankings, which the NCAA Tournament committee uses rather than the RPI in selecting its field of 68, the Razorbacks ranked 23rd in Monday’s first NET of the season.
Tennessee, ranks No. 3 in the NET and dropped only from seventh to ninth in the AP poll despite tumbling to the Tide.
Musselman said all knowing the college game respect a Barnes coached team. Head coaching since 1987 at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Tennessee and Texas, Barnes compiles a 707-375 career record.
“Coach Barnes is an incredible coach,” Musselman said. “He always has great defensive teams. They have a lot of talent. They have a lot of returners.”
Up front Vols 6-9 John Fulkerson and 6-6 Yves Pons bring power scoring inside and on the boards and block shots, too.
Guards Victor Bailey, a transfer leading the Vols scoring averaging 13 points, sophomore Santiago Vescovi, the Uruguay native impacting last season as a mid-year transfer starting all 19 games he played and currently second in the SEC in assists/turnover ratio (30 assists vs. 13 turnovers) and 6-6 sophomore Josiah Jordan-James, the team’s leading rebounder, have played well as have Johnson and Springer off the bench.
“I thought last year (Santiago) Vescovi was really, really good coming in mid-year,” Musselman said. “Just done nothing but get better and better and better. Fulkerson’s a really tough matchup because of his ability to draw free throws. Pons is arguably one of the best defenders in the nation and one of the shot-blockers. He can make a three, elevates one people. Victor Bailey can really stroke the ball. James is really, really good player as well. Then they bring guys off that bench that are really good.”
Talented as Tennessee is, Musselman’s concern starts with his Hogs playing so out of character their last game.
It starts back to basics on layups and common sense.
“Go old school on your finishes around the rim,” Musselman said. “Knock off the degree-of-difficulty layups. It’s been a problem with this team all year, our shots around the rim. When you get an offensive rebound and there’s three guys with their arms up, you don’t try to shoot through six arms, and you pass the ball out and you spray it around for a quick three.”
Regarding who joins starting guards Moses Moody, Jalen Tate and Desi Sills and center Connor Vanover as the starter replacing Smith, Musselman seems more inclined to start another big man among 6-10 reserves Jaylin Williams and Vance Jackson or 6-8 Ethan Henderson than starting sixth man guard JD Notae or Davonte Davis, the 6-3 freshman guard who started against Mizzou.
“I was not happy with our four-guard lineup at all,” Musselman said. “We didn’t rebound. We gave up way too much inside.”