By Otis Kirk
Special to the Nate Allen Sports Service
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has played well at home this season, but it may need better than that on Tuesday night.
The Razorbacks will host No. 11 Auburn at 6 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena. Auburn (19-2, 6-2) is coming off a big 75-66 win over Kentucky on Saturday. The Hogs have only lost two games in Bud Walton Arena, but one was to Kentucky and the other was the last home game this past Wednesday against South Carolina.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman knows the Razorbacks will get a big test from the Tigers.
“Obviously you play a team that’s top 15 in the county, it’s always a great opportunity.” Musselman said Monday. “Playing them at home is a great opportunity. Having said that, they’re ranked 11th for a reason because they’re really, really good. They’re really long.
They’re really experienced. When you start looking at their roster, obviously they lost a lot last year off a great team.”
Auburn is coached by Bruce Pearl who, like Musselman, is intense on the sidelines.
“Coach Pearl does a great job,” Musselman said. “He’s intense for an entire 40 minutes and his team kind of takes on his personality. But they’re old, too. I mean, they’ve got some guys that have experience on their roster. Then they have a freshman (Isaac Okoro) that’s just been incredible. Okoro’s done such a great for them. Defensively, he’s a really good defender. He does a great job of getting to the basket off dribble drives. Then they’re an awesome offensive-rebounding team as well.
“And they draw fouls. You look at the 44 free throws, they took against Kentucky, that’s a pretty big number.”
In the loss to South Carolina, Arkansas and the Gamecocks combined for 57 fouls. Musselman knows the team has to avoid fouling that much against a very good Auburn squad.
“I think we just got to be who we are defensively,” Musselman said. “It’s not like we’re going to come out and play a zone. We’re going to have to do what we work on every day and what we’ve been working on since the summer. I don’t believe in having 12 different defenses. I don’t think you can be really good if you try to do 12 different things. Look, people know how we’re going to defend. They know we are going to play man-to-man defense, and we’re going to aggressively guard the 3-point line. We are going to fly around and try to get defensive rebounds. But, I think we don’t want to take away our aggressiveness either.”
Arkansas’ Mason Jones was named the Co-SEC Player of the Week for the third time on Monday. Jones followed up a 34-point, 12-rebound performance in a loss against South Carolina on Wednesday with a 30-point outing in the Hogs’ come-from-behind 82-78 win at Alabama on Saturday. Musselman talked about what it meant for Jones to accomplish something no one else in SEC has done this season.
“I think it’s awesome,” Musselman said. “He’s had such a great year. It really started this summer. When I think about him at 6 in morning getting shots up. The whole team didn’t get up and shoot at 6 in the morning. He was a guy that was very consistent in his approach and I think all his hard work is why he has had such a high jump from where he was last year.
“The versatility that he’s added to his game. Not just a spot-up shooter, but his ability to create off the dribble. His ability to be a point forward now. He plays point guard as the game kinda goes on each night. He starts off at the four and then morphs into our point guard. It’s awesome when a guy works hard and then his game elevates which is what’s happened with Mason.”
Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe is battling a knee injury that prevented him from playing against TCU and limited in the other games since then though he has played. Musselman addressed Joe’s status for Tuesday.
“He’s going to be day-to-day probably for two to three weeks,” Musselman said. “That’s what it’s going to be. He’ll be day-to-day, and if he’s able to play, whenever that is over the next two weeks, great. If he’s not able to play, we just need people to step up like they did against TCU.
“With our roster, whether it’s Reggie (Chaney), Adrio (Bailey), I mean, we need a full roster. We’re not a deep team. But, just as we saw on TCU when a player goes down or is not able to play then somebody else gets opportunities. We just got to go day-by-day and see where we stand and see what our roster looks like.”
Musselman downplayed any thought on shutting Joe down for a few games.
“I don’t want Mark O’Neil to give me out-of-bounds plays, don’t want him to give me defensive schemes on how to play Auburn, and I’m not going to tell him anything about medical,” Musselman said. “I don’t know anything about it. I know my back is sore right now and that’s all I know medically. I can’t comment or talk about any of our guys. If somebody has got a head cold, I don’t know what that does to a player’s energy. If a guy has got a bad ankle, I mean it’s just kind of up to Mark. When Desi went down, I just say, ‘Is he ready or not.’”
Chaney had 11 rebounds against Alabama and that was obviously pleasing for Musselman.
“I thought his second-half rebounding is just what we needed,” Musselman said. “I thought he rebounded in traffic. I thought he range rebounded. I thought there was some really, really good things he did on the glass. All conference play he has been really, really good finishing around the rim.
“It was probably his best defensive job when we have gone to our switching gameplan. He did a great job of walling up going vertical. Kept Kira Lewis in front of him which I think is as hard a guy in league keeping in front of you. I thought he did a phenominal job defensively and on the defensive backboards.”
Arkansas’ attendance is up considerably this season. Arkansas (16-5, 4-4) has drawn well particularly since SEC play started. But Tuesday night with an early tip could be more challenging.
“I think any time you play a top-15 team in the country, you can kind of feel the excitement in the air,” Musselman said. “I think that our building…our fans are really smart, they have really high basketball IQ and I think they enjoy watching this team play because of the effort that these guys are giving. It’s kind of our job to create the excitement, we have to play well to get a home-court advantage. If you don’t play well, it doesn’t help much. You have to play well, hopefully we put 40 minutes together, we’ll see.”
Another thing that has haunted Arkansas in recent games is some slow starts. Musselman hopes the Hogs can avoid another one against Auburn.
“I’d rather not call two quick timeouts, but, you know, sometimes you miss three shots and you screw up two defensive assignments and all of a sudden you’re down 6-0 and you come down and miss another 3 and they go down and get layup,” Musselman said. “Now you’re down 8-0. Just got to get quality shots, too. Sometimes you’re going to miss an open shot, you can’t force shots to start a game. You just can’t do it, especially on the road. Alabama scores against everybody. I mean, Alabama can score the ball. I’d rather play well down the stretch, though, than get out to a 12-0 lead and lose.”
Musselman, who played at the University of San Diego, recalled a previous experience he had against Auburn as a player.
“Yes, please go to YouTube,” Musselman said. “1987 Hoosier Dome. If you go to that clip, they did not guard me. I have the audio. My buddy who put that out many years ago, I think he took the audio off because he liked me, because the announcer said that Auburn’s gameplan was not to guard me when I came in. They were playing triangle-and-2 and there’s no one within 100 feet of me. I had two open shots, I made 1 out of 2 and coach (Hank) Egan yanked me. We lost.”
Musselman joked about the outcome of that game when asked why the coach took him out.
“I’ve asked myself that for the last 20-something years, I don’t know, bad coaching,” Musselman said with a wide smile.
Was it exciting play?
“Oh yeah,” Musselman said. “In the Hoosier Dome, in front of 50,000 people, Indiana ended up playing right after us and I think we ended up losing by 2 or 3. Our starting point guard got the ball caught on his hip and made a layup and they called traveling, that was the game. If the coach had left me in, I would’ve shot a three instead of going to the cup and maybe we would’ve won.”
Tuesday night’s game will be televised on the SEC Network.