The Arkansas Razorbacks pulled themselves out of two-game tailspin with a better performance Tuesday at Bud Walton Arena with a 81-55 victory over the Elon Phoenix.
The Hogs moved to 10-2 on the season, and are not back in action until Dec. 29 when they open SEC play in Starkville, Miss. against the the Mississippi State Bulldogs (9-3), which defeated Winthrop, 84-63, Tuesday night.
Bouncing back after back-to-back losses to Houston and Hofstra the previous two weekends pleased coach Eric Musselman. The victory doesn’t necessarily alleviate all the team’s issues, but it should allow them to enjoy a short holiday break before reconvening to begin work for their SEC opener on Christmas night.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Mississippi State
When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29
Where: Starkville, MS
TV: SEC Network
Next 5 games
Jan. 4 – Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 8 – at Texas A&M, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 12 – Missouri, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 15 – at LSU, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 18 – South Carolina, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Musselman might or might not have gone a bit overboard with his praise right after the game, but winning is always a cure-all for a team that’s been struggling.
“It’s by far the best game we’ve played all year,” Musselman said. “I thought we played really, really good basketball for about 30 minutes. Really good basketball.
“I thought our team played with great joy. I thought they really shared the ball. I thought there were times we overshared the basketball even, which maybe we haven’t seen that.”
Musselman went with a new starting five of J.D. Notae, Chris Lykes, Jaxon Robinson, Connor Vanover, and Trey Wade. The contest ended up being breakout games for Robinson and Kamani Johnson, who played off the bench.
“We had some guys that hadn’t had an opportunity to play a lot, and they were hungry,” Musselman said. “Some of the other guys who have had a lot of opportunity need to play with more energy because you cannot win in the SEC unless you have toughness and you play with great energy and you have a competitive will to win. You can’t win in this league unless you possess all those qualities.”
If was a career night for Robinson, who hit 3 of 6 3-pointers to score 14 points. The transfer from Texas A&M has a silky smooth stroke. He might be the best pure shooter on the team.
“One thing about Jaxson Robinson, he can shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “Like, the skin off the ball. We’re going to need him to do that down the road and we’re all behind Jax.
“When it leaves his hands, you can trust that bench is up. We all feel like it’s going in. So as long as he keeps shooting that ball, trust me, we have confidence in that. So we’re going to keep on going to him.”
Johnson’s energy and toughness changed the complexion of the game. The Hogs trailed by 5 when he entered the game, but soon began a run that ultimately turned the game around. He had 7 rebounds and 3 blocked shots while scoring 15 points. Johnson might be the defensive fixer that the Hogs have been missing this season.
“It’s always frustrating when you don’t get to play a lot,” Johnson said. “But I think the coaching staff and my family have been doing a good job of just telling me to keep on working and just keeping trust in myself and trust in my game. When you are not playing you can start doubting yourself, but my inner circle and the coaches just keep telling me to work and work.”
I would expect Johnson and Robinson’s playing time will continue to rise if they keep contributing in such a fashion.
Lykes, who hit 12 of 12 free throws, led all Hog scorers with 21. Notae scored 15 and had a team high 7 rebounds. Devo Davis didn’t score, but he had 6 assists and 6 rebounds with just two turnovers.
Trey Wade added 7 points, 5 rebounds a steal and three blocks in his most extensive play this season.
Johnson revealed that a player’s only meeting called by Davis was key in getting the Hogs back on the right track.
“Devo sent a text and we all met up,” Johnson said. “Everybody talked. “I mean, we’re grown men, so everybody put their input in. “We kind of got some stuff squared away. What we needed. It showed.”
Musselman liked the leadership Davis showed, as well as the improved play of he team after that pow-wow.
“I think the one thing that our team has lacked this year is internal leadership,” Musselman said. “The coaching staff are leaders, but great teams are player-led. We need more player voices, we need more player accountability. In game, post game. Accountability individually. And the last two days, I think we’ve taken a step in the right direction.”