When asked about his team’s 8-0 start Tuesday following the Arkansas Razorbacks’69-61 victory over Austin Peay, first-year head coach Eric Musselman deflected the question like he was NBA and Boston Celtics great Bill Russell swatting a shot.
Russell, the all-time great NBA defensive center who led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles during his storied career, was so crafty at blocking shots that he not only would negate the basket but more often than not keep the ball in play by deflecting the block to one of his teammates.
That was just how crafty Musselman was when he shifted the question about the Razorbacks’ early season success to their next opponent Western Kentucky.
The Hogs, who lost to the Hilltoppers, 78-77, last year in Walton Arena, travel to Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. contest against Rick Stansbury’s 6-3 club, which lost 76-74 to Wright State on Tuesday.
“All I’m thinking about right now is Bassey,” Musselman said. “In the locker room, we have Western Kentucky’s starters listed on the board.”
Bassey is the Hilltoppers’ 6-11, 230-pound center, who is averaging 15.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. He is a load for any team to handle, much less a Razorback squad whose biggest player Reggie Chaney checks in at a foul-prone 6-8, 222.
While Arkansas fans are allowed to bask in the Razorbacks’ best start in 22 years, Musselman’s past all of that, trying to find a way to give his squad the best chance to move to 9-0 on the road in what will probably be the Razorbacks’ biggest test of the season so far.
That said don’t think the significance of the Razorbacks’ 8-0 start is lost on the stat and history mad Musselman.
From the respect he’s shown to Arkansas basketball history and him just being a numbers and facts guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew that 1997-98 was the last time the Razorbacks opened 8-0, and he might even know that the last time the Razorbacks started the season 9-0 was the national championship season of 1993-94.
That type of information is fun for a fanbase who has watched the Razorbacks play mediocre basketball for two and half decades, and it certainly is a soothing salve to the wounds left from back-to-back 2-10 football seasons and an 0-19 football record in the SEC dating back to October of 2017.
Personally, I’m proud the Razorbacks have gotten off to such a quick start and that their early season success is positioning them for a possible run at a NCAA Tournament bid.
However, Musselman knows that making too much of the Razorbacks’ success is just the type of “rat poison” Alabama football coach Nick Saban rails against from time to time.
The Hogs aren’t playing perfect. In fact, Musselman pointed out that the Razorbacks’ intensity and attention to detail has not been as on point in their last three games as it as in their first five, but he knows he has this team’s attention and focus, and he doesn’t want that ruined by making too much out of records that don’t mean a lot going forward.
Musselman probably doesn’t want his sophomore-dominated team feeling any unnecessary pressure because as he mentioned, the forthcoming trip to Bowling Green brings enough pressure on its own.
“It’s not going to be an easy place to play,” Musselman noted. “It’s a weekend game. I’m sure they’ll have a good crowd. They came in here last year and won the game. Our guys know that they beat us here last year, and when the schedule came out we knew with the three true road games, meaning the Georgia Tech game, the Western Kentucky game and the Indiana game, we knew those three games we had to circle.”
The stat that jumped out at Musselman from the victory over Austin Peay wasn’t a good one. The Razorbacks had 20 turnovers, with Mason Jones, who returned to the lineup after missing Northern Kentucky game with a shoulder injury, stacking up six of them.
Musselman said the Hogs’ goal is to just have nine turnovers a game, so with one player getting two-thirds of them, it was a concern. Not a huge one, but it was worth pointing out to the junior, who scored 16 points and is the team’s leading scorer at 18.1 ppg.
Despite the turnovers, Musselman credited Jones for playing well in his return. Jones also had two assists and 4 rebounds. One of his assists set up Isaiah Jones for one of his three, three-pointers on the night. Joe had been struggling from the three-point line of late, but looked more in sync. Joe scored 16 points with two steals and an assist.
The two biggest baskets of the night came on back-to-back three-pointers by Des Sills in a 34-second span that separated the Razorbacks from Austin Peay. Sills, a good three-point shooter a year ago, had not found the range this season, making just 2 of 30 treys coming into the game. Canning those separating jumpers should help Sills’ confidence as the Razorback go on the road.
By the way, I love Sills’ toughness. He has the grit that characterized great Razorbacks guards of the past like a Lee Mayberry or Corey Beck. He’s not flashy, but Sills seems to come up with just what the Hogs need at just the right time.
Overall, Musselman liked the Razorbacks shooting performance. At 47.8 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from the three, and 88.9 percent from the free-throw line, it came close to the what Musselman called a 50-40-80 game. It’s an NBA term for playing about as well as a team can play offensively, Musselman explained.
Again the only mar was the Razorbacks’ carelessness with the basketball. If the Hogs had just had 10 or 12 turnovers instead of 20, the Razorbacks would have ran away with the game.
Jimmy Whitt continued to play outstanding basketball for the Razorbacks, leading them in scoring with 17 points for the second time in three games. He had an assist and a steal and an uncharacteristic 2 turnovers. Whitt provides a steadiness and an experience as a point guard who roams the baseline that may be unique in college basketball. His leadership in invaluable to this team.
The Razorbacks got a first-half lift from little-used Ethan Henderson, who gave the Razorbacks a solid 7 minutes with 3 blocked shots, 4 rebounds, and a basket. The willowy 6-8 sophomore made the most of his minutes, and would be a great help to Hogs if he could contribute in a similar fashion the rest of the year.
Defensively the Razorbacks continued to play well, holding Austin Peay to 41.5 percent shooting from the field and 31.6 percent from three-point range.
While certainly not a perfect game for the Hogs, the victory did keep the Razorbacks’ record spotless for the time being.
While Musselman is doing his best to keep the Hogs’ 8-0 start from going to the player’s heads, Razorback fans are certainly enjoying a positive winning streak on the hardwood, while awaiting athletic director Hunter Yurachek to bag them a winner on his head football coach searching safari.