Arkansas was having such a charmed first season under Eric Musselman that this recent, turbulent mid-season lull has been awfully jarring.
But why? It is no great revelation that the projections for this squad three short months ago were grim. Once the team started to exhibit its tenacity, though, and got used to winning road games and storming back from late deficits, many around the state got perhaps too jazzed up. Forgetting that this squad lacks tall guys and, well, SEC-caliber talent up and down the bench, fans were enamored with the quality of product and maybe quick to overlook those known flaws.
Isaiah Joe was clearly hurting and his play was suffering, so when his knee finally got worked on, a short-handed roster was robbed of its most reliable shooter (even though Joe was scuffling in that regard, no doubt attributable in some part to pain) and a good perimeter defender. Arguably, his absence has been felt most in the latter area, as this four-game slide has largely been a function of the team’s failure to get timely stops.
What Arkansas did throughout the first few weeks of 2019-20 was will itself to victories it might have previously failed to close. The aggregate effect of all those hard-fought games is a worn-out, frustrated bunch that has a nasty habit of starting games slowly and having to work awfully hard to scrap their way back. Back-to-back overtime heartbreakers against Auburn and Missouri were so draining, and notable for the Hogs frittering away late leads and momentum through sluggish play. The follow-up to those defeats was an unsurprisingly listless blowout loss at Tennessee and then, most achingly and recently, Saturday’s one-point loss at a suitably raucous Bud Walton Arena to Mississippi State on a tip-in by Abdul Ado with six-tenths of a second left.
Now 16-9, and most worryingly, 4-8 in the SEC, this Razorback team is looking very fragile going into its final act. It’s also a bit concerning that head coach Eric Musselman’s once-brimming confidence and composure has given way to some visible agitation. Mason Jones’ fieriness has boiled over on a few occasions and the junior guard’s exceptional scoring has ended up being insufficient because there’s simply too much of the offensive flow heaped on him. Jalen Harris and Jimmy Whitt have been steady contributors but neither shoots the ball from deep. Desi Sills, Reggie Chaney and Adrio Bailey have all upped their workload and productivity.
But that’s six guys, counting Jones, who populate just about all of the box score columns now. He’s doing everything in his power, but Arkansas is only 2-3 in his 30-point scoring games. Joe’s shooting woes notwithstanding, defenses had to pay heed to his range and fearlessness. That threat hasn’t been present.
And late-game decision making and, yes, strategy has been problematic. Harris isn’t a very capable shooter generally, but against Auburn and Missouri, he was given the ball for a game-winning opportunity and those chances weren’t cashed. Jones tried to hoist a back breaking three against the Bulldogs Saturday afternoon with the Hogs clinging to a thin one-point lead, and misfired badly. The offense was flourishing against Auburn en route to a big second-half surge that led to an 11-point lead; Arkansas promptly went into a stall, however, making only one more field goal over the final five minutes of regulation.
It’s still an endearing team that has a chance to get back onto and through the damnable bubble with a resurgence, but the path to recovery is fraught with difficulty. The second tilts against Texas A&M, Tennessee, Missouri and LSU loom ahead and fortunately the last three of those are home games with revenge on the mind. A road trip to Florida on Tuesday night represents another short, perilous turnaround after a hard-to-swallow Saturday loss, though. And there’s a very considerably cluttered middle of the league that simply has the jump now on the Hogs — Mississippi State’s sweep of the Razorbacks and South Carolina’s steal at Bud Walton leverages them in the event head-to-head performance dictates who’s in the mix or out in less than a month. Once a certainty in the field, the Hogs are now squarely on the outside peering back in.
The last three weeks of the regular season will confirm whether the players’ buy-in to Musselman’s technical approach will be lasting. He’s already shepherded this team to some pretty remarkable heights in a season that arrived with modest expectations, but his team’s response to this downturn will be rather critical in the long term too. If Musselman is the program reshaper that many have regarded him to be — I’m squarely among the believers — then these remaining games are of more consequence than simply dictating a single postseason destiny or seeding.