FAYETTEVILLE — After consecutive Arkansas 2-10 overall, 0-8 SEC football seasons, Razorbacks fans know a team letting go of the rope when they see one.
Watching Tuesday night’s telecast of Arkansas’ 82-61 SEC basketball loss to the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, Tenn., they saw one letting go for the first time under first-year coach Eric Musselman.
Obviously at 16-8 overall, 4-7 in the SEC, these Razorbacks under Musselman have lost before.
But with three overtime losses, two two-point losses and two up for grabs until the finish seven-point losses as previous defeats, Tuesday’s tumble tabulated the first blowout.
A blowout start to finish.
Following the first six defeats, Musselman still marveled justifiably how hard his Hogs played and the grit they showed.
He did not laud Arkansas’ effort last Saturday in Columbia, Missouri, even as the game contested through overtime with Missouri finally prevailing 83-79.
Mizzou’s now 11-13, 3-8 Tigers played harder than his Hogs, Musselman said.
But not nearly so much harder than coach Rick Barnes’ Volunteers, only 14-10 overall and 1-5 for their most recent six games, out-efforted Arkansas in Knoxville.
“I thought Tennessee played with more energy and played harder and we didn’t fight when things became difficult,” Musselman told media postgame in Knoxville.
Before addressing the media, Musselman also didn’t mince words postgame to the Razorbacks Radio Network audience while noting the Mississippi State Bulldogs, 77-70 Jan. 22 victors over Arkansas in Starkville, Miss., rematch in Saturday’s noon SEC game at Walton Arena.
“Disappointing effort,” Musselman said. “Wish we would have played better, wish we would have played harder but we didn’t. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us for sure. We’ve got to get ready for Mississippi State. There’s not much else I can say other than I’m sure the fans are extremely disappointed and so am I and so is our coaching staff.”
The same mistakes that Arkansas made but almost overcame in Columbia, Mo., the Vols in Knoxville exploited to the max.
Arkansas committed 10 first-half turnovers while trailing Mizzou 36-30 at intermission.
The Hogs again committed first-half turnovers in Knoxville. They were down and out 40-23 at intermission.
“We start the game with too many turnovers,” Musselman said. “We didn’t even catch the ball cleanly. We bobbled passes.”
Mizzou outrebounded them 52-35.
Tennessee outrebounded them 40-29, while the Hogs could hit but 15 of 49 shots.
“We definitely aren’t great rebounding and we’ve got to make open shots,” Musselman said. “We didn’t have any offensive flow.”
At Columbia, the Razorbacks committed 32 fouls while allowing Mizzou 44 free throw attempts with 34 made.
Though equaling Tennessee’s 26 committed fouls and attempting six more free throws, 26 of 36 to the Vols’ 24 of 30, the Razorbacks already short bench shortened significantly.
Starting forwards Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney plunged into immediate foul trouble.
So normally sparingly used reserve forwards Ethan Henderson and Jeantal Cylla played nearly as much as Bailey and Chaney.
“Reggie and Adrio both had two fouls within the first five minutes of the game,” Musselman said. “That discombobulates your rotation.”
Missing injured star guard Isaiah Joe, out indefinitely since last week’s arthroscopic knee surgery, certainly discombobulates the rotation.
Especially with star guard Mason Jones now two games discombobulated.
After scoring 34, 30 and 40 points, the 40 in the overtime loss to Auburn with Joe recovering from that day’s surgery, Jones fouled out against Mizzou visibly agitated.
He hit just 3 of 14 from the field in Columbia though he did score 17 points thanks to 11 of 16 free throws.
Bringing Jones off the bench in Knoxville might help Jones and the Hogs, Musselman thought.
It didn’t. Jones only hit 1 of 10 shots. He sat 23 of the second half’s 40 minutes.
“We didn’t start him tonight to try and give him some pop off the bench,” Musselman said. “We’re struggling on both sides of the ball for sure.”
Despite scoring a team leading 19 points, graduate transfer guard Jimmy Whitt traced the team’s woes to effort.
“The fight wasn’t there,” Whitt said postgame. “The effort wasn’t there tonight, just plain and simple. There’s only so much talking you can do before everybody has to look themselves in the mirror and ask how much they want it.”
An NCAA Tournament bid, so apparent before losing six of the last seven SEC games, seems slipping.
Mississippi State’s Bulldogs, also on the NCAA Tournament bubble at 15-9, 6-5, took an unexpected, 83-58 beating Tuesday night administered by Ole Miss.
So two teams fearing their bubble bursting seek Saturday regaining their fight in Fayetteville.