Hogs welcome MVSU to Fayetteville for opener
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FAYETTEVILLE — After one of the longest and most unusual offseasons in recent memory, Arkansas basketball is finally set to return Wednesday evening.
The Razorbacks will open the 2020-21 season by hosting Mississippi Valley State at 6:30 p.m. CT inside a socially distanced, reduced capacity Bud Walton Arena. The game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
It will mark the end of a long layoff that started with the disappointment of not getting to play in the postseason because of the cancellation of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments and endured the uncertainty that came with the coronavirus pandemic, including pushing the start of the season back.
For several weeks, Arkansas and all of the new players second-year head coach Eric Musselman has at his disposal have been limited to practicing and scrimmaging amongst themselves, highlighted by the annual Red-White game earlier this month.
On Wednesday, though, the games count and the Razorbacks will begin building their resume for what they hope to be an appearance in March Madness.
“There’s no doubt they’re hungry for other competition,” Musselman said. “I don’t know how we’re going to come out on Wednesday, but I know (Monday) we were … Maybe it was because they knew we weren’t going to have a long practice and they weren’t going to have to deal with me for a long period of time today, but they’re spirited, they’re hungry, they want to compete.”
With only Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson returning from last year’s team, it will be the first time 10 players - four freshmen, three sit-out transfers and three graduate transfers - will suit up for the Razorbacks in a real game.
As much turnover as Arkansas has experienced this offseason, though, Mississippi Valley State has seen even more.
Led by second-year coach and long-time NBA player Lindsey Hunter, the Delta Devils return just one player from their team that went 3-27 and was, according to KenPom, the third-worst team in Division I basketball last season.
Luckily for them, that player is sophomore Caleb Hunter, the coach’s son and the reigning SWAC Freshman of the Year. He was Mississippi Valley’s second-leading scorer behind the since-graduated Michael Green, averaging 15.7 points on 33.2 percent shooting.
The 5-foot-11 guard was a high-volume three-point shooter - his 259 attempts were the most among all DI freshmen last year - and ended the season on a good note, scoring 30 points in two of the Delta Devils’ last three games.
“Usually a player makes his biggest jump from his freshman to his sophomore year,” Musselman said. “Obviously Hunter had a great freshman year, so he’s obviously been a focal point of our preparation.”
Following his first season as coach, Hunter completely overhauled his roster. In addition to keeping his son on board, he brought in four freshmen and seven transfers - from the JUCO ranks and the portal.
Even with all of those new pieces, Musselman said he expects Mississippi Valley State to play the same style, which emphasizes playing fast.
The Delta Devils will grab defensive rebounds and push the ball up the floor with the goal of scoring within the first 12 seconds of the shot clock. Despite their struggles, they led the country in KenPom’s adjusted tempo category.
“With the pace that they play at, transition defense is going to be really important,” Musselman said. “I told the guys, ‘If you’re jogging back on defense, you’re probably going to end up sitting next to me. You’ve got to sprint back on transition defense.’”
On the flip side of that, Mississippi Valley State gave up 89.7 points per game last year, which ranked next-to-last in the country.
While he’s certainly stressing transition defense, Musselman said he doesn’t plan to put the brakes on Arkansas’ transition offense. He’s not going to try to slow things down, but rather still do the things his teams are known for.
“We're still going to go to the offensive boards, we're still going to be aggressive in our dribble-drive,” Musselman said. “We always count passes, but we count passes more so to try to encourage team basketball and the ball going first side, second side, third side.
“If someone is open for a quick 3-ball like we shot last year with Mason (Jones) or Isaiah (Joe) or Desi, we want the quickest, fastest, best available shot that we can get.”
Mississippi Valley State enters the season ranked 357th out of 357 Division I teams on KenPom, so the opener could serve as an excellent opportunity for Musselman to get a look at multiple players and combinations - especially considering the Razorbacks lost their usual exhibition games because of the ongoing pandemic.
However, he claimed he didn’t know about the Delta Devils being ranked last in DI and said he’s treating it as a normal regular-season game.
“The object of the game is to try to win on Wednesday night,” Musselman said. “The only thing we’re trying to figure out is how do we get a win? Then as the game’s progressing, I think you’ve just got to see who’s playing well.”
As of Monday, the second-year coach still had no idea who he planned to start Wednesday night. He said he hoped to have that - and the first three players off the bench - figured out by the end of Tuesday’s practice.
Those minutes will be determined by each player’s performance in the practices leading up to the season, which Musselman and his staff have meticulously charted as they tried different combinations seemingly every day.