FAYETTEVILLE – In their bygone Southwest Conference basketball days the Arkansas Razorbacks customarily ran over the Rice Owls. Under new Arkansas coach Eric Musselman’s season-opening debut Tuesday night they certainly reprised those routing Rice SWC days.
Leading the first half by 20, Arkansas represented the SEC with a 91-43 romp over Coach Scott Pera’s Owls of Conference USA before an announced 17,274 swelling Walton Arena.
Guards Mason Jones, a career high 32 points including 4 of 8 treys, with seven rebounds and five steals, sophomore Fort Smith Northside alum Isaiah Joe, 24 points with 4 of 11 treys and a team high seven assists, and junior Jalen Harris 10 points, led Arkansas’ scoring.
Senior forward Adrio Bailey’s nine rebounds led Arkansas’ rebounding as the Hogs cleaned the boards 45-27 and induced 27 Rice though committing 21 themselves.
“Really proud of the effort that our team showed on both ends of the floor,” Musselman said. “To score 91 points when we really are still trying to figure out kind of who we are and what our identity is. Now we had 21 turnovers so if we could 10 of those back and have a shot on goal maybe we score a little bit more. Defensively I thought we were locked in. Probably only had three or four defensive missed assignments which is very few for an opening night. They shared the ball. They had fun, they competed, they played with energy. They played with effort. They played with enthusiasm.”
Jones certainly had fun. “Last year I pressed myself and was overthinking a lot,” Jones said. “This year, I just want to have fun and let the game come to me and let the Cheerios fall where they may.” Obviously was feeling his oats in all phases including taking an assist from Joe for a big dunk not seen from Jones last season though he stands 6-5. “That’s one of my main things this year, just to be able to finish above the rim,” Jones said. “Right there I wanted to show I’ve been working on it. It was kind of easy tonight.”
It came easily but Musselman didn’t prepare them easily, Jones asserted. “We really took this week hard,”Jones said. “The coaches stayed on us. They didn’t let us relax, and they told us to take Rice like we were playing an SEC team. So we were prepared and we knew we wanted to show the hard work we put in this summer and in training camp.”
Finishing the first half’s final 5:15 with a 14-3 run, the Razorbacks led, 39-19 at intermission. Jones, 17 first-half points, hit two quick threes for a quick 6-0 lead. The Owls flocked to their only lead on an 8-0 run at 8-6. Starting with a Sills drive, Arkansas scored the next six including another Jones trey. Rice never got closer than 14-10. Joe’s dunk at 5:15 followed by his 2-point jumper at 4:35 and his assist for Jones’ crowd roaring, Rice timeout inducing dunk at 4:19 had Rice reeling down, 31-16.
Arkansas’ first-half lead twice peaked at 21 during a half that Arkansas’ defensive twice forced Rice shot-clock violations and outrebounded the Owls 22-11. For his 17 first-half points, Jones shot 6 of 8 from the field while grabbing a team-leading six rebounds. The Owls are known to be a 3-point shooting team, but Arkansas’ perimeter defense limited them to making but 2 of 13 in the first half. They shot threes even worse the second half, 0 for 13 finishing the game 2 of 25 to Arkansas’ 10 of 25 treys.
Harris’ trey was the lone first-half Arkansas 3-pointer in 12 team attempts other than Jones’ 3 of 5. Joe’s 3-pointer and Bailey’s steal and layup created a Arkansas’ second-half spurt that had Rice Coach Scott Pera calling timeout down 49-22 at 17:57.
For Scott Pera’s Owls it just got worse with a 14-3 Razorbacks run. Arkansas played Tuesday night without 6-8 sophomore forward Reggie Chaney, suspended by Musselman “indefinitely for violation of team rules” and learned that via University of California sophomore transfer center Connor Vanover’s appeal to the NCAA for 2019-2020 eligibility has been denied. Little Rock native Vanover, appealing for a waiver on having to redshirt on the undergraduates transferring from one Division 1 school to another must redshirt on the basis of being closer to his ailing grandmother in Arkansas, and because the California head coach who recruited him was fired after last season, will practice with the Razorbacks but not play while redshirting this season. Vanover begins his Arkansas basketball eligibility as a sophomore in 2020-2021.
The 1-0 Hogs next play next Tuesday night hosting the North Texas Mean Green at Walton. The Houston based Owls, 0-1, next play Saturday hosting the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3SportsAction