FAYETTEVILLE — Eric Musselman expects his Razorbacks better revved driving into Wednesday’s SEC game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Walton Arena than when annihilated, 90-59 by Alabama on Jan. 16 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“When we played them the first year, their offense was like Lamborghini and our offense was like a Prius,” Musselman said.
Musselman then cited numbers that Arkansas cannot afford to repeat on its dashboard in Wednesday’s 8 p.m. ESPN2 televised game.
“The elephant in the room from game one, 90, 18 and 15,” Musselman said. “They made 15 threes, they scored 90 points, and we had 18 turnovers. So we obviously have to play a lot better basketball than we did in Tuscaloosa.”
Recent events indicate the Razorbacks will.
That Jan. 16 Alabama game marked the last SEC game that the Razorbacks didn’t win.
Now ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press, they’ve won seven SEC games consecutively going into last Saturday’s game versus Texas A&M postponed in College Stadium, Texas, because of the Aggies’ positive COVID-19 tests that also postponed the Feb. 6 game that A&M was supposed to play Arkansas at Walton.
What, other than graduate transfer forward Justin Smith now healthy whereas that Alabama game marked his tentative return, is the difference in these now 20th-ranked Razorbacks, 17-5 overall and at 9-4 in the SEC tied for second with LSU in the SEC behind only nationally No. 6 Alabama, 13-1 in the league and 18-5 overall?
“When I go back and watch that game, we weren’t ourselves honestly,” Arkansas graduate transfer point guard Jalen Tate replied. “We’re a completely different team now, we’re moving the ball a lot differently. It was Justin’s (Smith) first game back and I don’t know if he was all the way ready but we know we are now and we have just a different approach.”
And extra opportunity to hone that approach.
“We’ve had more time this week with the A&M game cancelled,” Tate said. “So we got right on Alabama and to be able to have these extra couple days, not only to rest our bodies but you know when we played them the first time I’m not sure how many games we’d just come off but I’m sure this is a longer turnaround this time. To just have that first game playing them and then to have that fire to compete and get some back on our home floor.”
Musselman said Smith, playing superbly offensively and defensively but then tentatively returning from ankle surgery after missing four games, “is a big part of it” regarding Arkansas’ improvement.
He also cites the coming of age of freshman guards Moses Moody, and Jacksonville’s Davonte “Devo” Davis and freshman backup center Jaylin Williams.
“When you have three freshmen that play as many minutes as our freshmen do, you’re kind of going to expect that those guys are going to get better,” Musselman said. “That’s what’s happened. I think our freshmen have gained confidence. I think that our three freshmen are continuing to understand what we want on both sides of the ball, understanding second and third and fourth options offensively on our sets and then also understanding maybe our rotations defensively. They continue to get better in that. Even once Justin went out, I think we’ve done a really good job of kind of recovering and then taking roles and expanding them to make us a little bit better team.”
As for Alabama, Coach Nate Oats’ rolling Tide obviously has not stood still.
“Coach Oats does a great job,” Musselman said. “They have great offensive spacing. They have a great drive-and-kick game. They’re a matchup nightmare because of the shooting and the ability to beat people off the bounce. Their players fit their system really, really well.”
Oats’ system works whether the Tide has the ball or not.
“They’re active on both sides of the ball,” Musselman said. “Everybody always talks about Alabama’s offense. Their defense is phenomenal. Again, I just think you look at both sides of the ball, in my opinion, they’re as good as anybody in the entire country.”
While getting a Saturday practice head start on Alabama, then taking Sunday’s NCAA mandated one per day week off, Musselman laments all the prep time for A&M games that likely won’t be made up given the Aggies have postponed eight games, seven consecutively including Wednesday’s game versus Kentucky.