It was a hot-and-cold start to the college basketball season for the No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks Tuesday at Bud Walton Arena, but a win is a win is a win.
The Mercer Bears (0-1) gave the third iteration of Eric Musselman’s Hogs (1-0) all they wanted for the first 30 minutes of play, trading leads with Arkansas deep into the second half, but Arkansas’ raw talent allowed the Razorbacks to pull away for a 74-61 victory despite a herky-jerky defensive performance that allowed the Bears to shoot 48 percent from the field and 47 percent from the 3-point line in the first half.
Those percentages fell to 45 and 41 percent in the second half, but the Hogs gave the Bears too much space at times for Musselman’s liking. Arkansas’ intensity did pick up in the second half and that allowed the Hogs to tame the bears despite their hot start. Arkansas’ own 18-2 run keyed the comeback.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Gardner-Webb
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Next 5 games
Nov. 17 – Northern Iowa, 7 p.m. (SEC+)
Nov. 22 – Kansas State in KC, 8 p.m. (ESPN News)
Nov. 23 – Cincinnati or Illinois in KC, TBA (ESPN News/ESPN 2)
Nov. 28 – Penn, 3 p.m. (SEC Network)
Dec. 1 – Central Arkansas, 7 p.m. (SEC+)
The Razorbacks trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half before getting their act together in the second half to close the gap and eventually pull away.
“The way we started the second half defensively really hurt us,” said Mercer coach Grey Gary, whose team was outscored 46-25 in the second half. “Arkansas got its head up and that eight-point lead shrunk in like 30 seconds. We didn’t do a good job on ball-screen defense, and defense in general. Too many times they drive right down the paint and we didn’t take a charge.”
Overall, Musselman liked his squad’s effort and defensive tenacity, particular as they worked themselves out of a second-half jam after trailing, 36-28 at the half. However, the Hogs’ shot selection confounded their coach.
“We’ve got to work on our shot selection across the board as a team,” Musselman said “…we’ve got to have a better assist-to-turnover ratio. We now have a body of work of three games and that’s got to get better for sure. I thought our effort, our energy was phenomenal.”
The Razorbacks had just 13 assists for the game with five of them coming from post Jaylin Williams. The Hogs settled for jump shots way too often.
JD Notae, who attended Mercer’s basketball camps while growing up but went unrecruited by the Bears, led all scorers with 30 points, but he pumped up 26 shots including 14 treys to reach that mark. He released two salvos from the Hog’s tail, making one and missing the other.
Notae worked his tail off on defense, too, making an incredible 7 steals with his frenetic play. His work in the weight room was evident as he muscled opposing guards.
The Razorbacks are still adjusting to themselves early in the season. The Hogs return key contributors from last year’s Elite Eight squad in Notae, Davonte (Devo) Davis, and Williams, but Musselman is also breaking in transfer talent like Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh), Chris Lykes (Miami), and Stanley Umude (South Dakotah). Fans could see flashes of their ability on display Tuesday, but as of yet, the team’s identity, particularly on defense, has yet to solidify.
One new Hog who stood out, though, was Toney, who scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 from the foul line. He also led the team in rebounding with 11 boards to record a double-double in his first outing as a Razorback. His play thrilled Musselman.
“I thought Au’Diese Toney was off the charts,” Musselman said. “We did not run one play for him and he scored 18 points in the most efficient way you possibly can. He was phenomenal. It’s a great lesson for any player at any level, whether it’s third grade CYO or YMCA ball or high school or whatever.
“You don’t need plays run for you to score if you cut hard and play hard and offensive rebound, and you find open holes in the defense. I thought he really saved us by the way that he played unselfishly throughout the course of the game.”
Gary was equally impressed with Toney.
“He just plays hard around the basket,” Gary said. “He is a big, strong guy that does all the dirty work and has the intangibles that great teams need.”
The athletic and hard-nosed Toney appears to be an instinctive rebounder, gathering boards outside his area. The way he attacked the glass reminded me a bit of Alvin Robertson, one of the toughest players to ever suit up for the Hogs during Eddie Sutton’s tenure as coach in the 1980s. Robertson played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic squad that captured the gold medal and was a standout defender in the NBA before a troubled personal life marred his reputation.
Lykes also impressed with his quickness, toughness, and ability to draw fouls at the basket and on jumpers. He scored an efficient 16 points off 4-of-7 shooting from the field and hit 7 of 8 free throws. His scrappiness and swagger is reminiscent of Kareem Reid, who played the point for Nolan Richardson from 1996-99.
Lykes’ defense lacked a bit as he was slow closing out on shooters and sometimes seemed to get lost within the defensive flow, but other times he was a pest to ball-handlers, getting underneath them.
Williams did not start, but he is the backbone of the Hogs’ defense, and as noted before, he is an excellent passer. He’s probably the best big-man passer for the Razorbacks since Oliver Miller keyed much of the Hogs’ half-court offense from the high post in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. However, his 4 turnovers were too many, nearly erasing the benefit of his 5 assists.
Umude had a solid night with 6 points and 3 rebounds, including a nice dunk, but he too seemed to get lost in the offensive flow with so many jumpers flying from beyond the 3-point line. However, that should be worked out the more he plays.
Davis, whose energy in the second half of last season was one of the keys to the Hogs’ Elite Eight run, had a difficult night on offense with five turnovers. He did not take a shot, but did contribute 4 rebounds and 3 steals. His defensive work with fellow guards did key the Hogs’ comeback.
Wichita State transfer Trey Wade and Arkansas-Little Rock transfer Kamani Johnson played 6:47 and 1:34 respectively after recovering from preseason injuries, but were unable to make a significant contribution.
This Hog team is talented, particularly at guard and on the wings. To reach their maximum potential the Razorbacks are going to have to come together defensively as well as sacrifice some of their individual jump shots for the good of the entire team, but it’s going to be fun to watch them develop.
The Hogs are loaded with offensive fire power, but ultimately how they embrace playing team defense will govern how good they will be.
The Razorbacks are back in action at Bud Walton Arena at 2 p.m. Saturday against Gardner-Webb. The game will be streamed on SEC Network Plus.