FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ vanquishing of Vanderbilt certainly didn’t look cheesy but it was.
Literally cheesy, Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman explained on his SEC Network interview following his Razorbacks clobbering the Commodores, 92-71 last Saturday afternoon at Vandy’s Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn.
Following Arkansas’ dramatic from 19 points down to 75-73 comeback victory over Auburn last Wednesday, Musselman baited his Razorbacks not to fall into the trap that it would be automatically smooth sailing against the Commodores, now 0-5 in SEC and dogged by covid-19 related player absences and games postponed.
“We brought out some cheese and just said ‘Don’t take the cheese that you played well the last game,” Musselman said. “This is a new game, a new team.’ We just had a little fun pregame.”
Of course Arkansas media asked about his cheesy comments when Musselman held his postgame Zoom press conference.
“We try to get creative, try to come up with new ideas,” Musselman said. “We did use cheese. It was taped underneath their chairs. The players, they’re not going to have my back. They’re going to tell you the truth.”
Knowing graduate transfer forward Justin Smith was one of the two players selected by basketball sports information director Mike Cawood to be media available, Musselman predicted Smith would rat him out for being cheesy.
“He’s usually the one that’s laughing at me,” Musselman said. “When he comes on you can ask him about the cheese. I’’m not saying it had one thing to do with the way we played, but certainly there was a few guys that got a good laugh out of it.”
Smith said the team took the bait to heart.
“Yeah, definitely,” Smith said. “In the SEC, the Power 5, it doesn’t matter who it is. Any game they can get you, regardless of their record, so you have to approach each game the same way, whether we’re playing the top team in the league or the bottom team in the league. It doesn’t matter. Everybody can beat you on any given day.”
After three dreadful starts in 92-76 and 90-51 losses at LSU and Alabama and the 19-point hole during the finished down 12 intermission at home vs. Auburn, the Razorbacks ambushed Vandy, 9-0 out the gate.
Other than the Commodores responding with a 6-0 run to down 9-6, the Hogs never looked back leading 45-35 at intermission then soaring the second stanza.
“I think we really came out focused on the defensive end,” Smith said. “We really kind of let our offense take care of itself and we really wanted to make them uncomfortable defensively. Once we were able to get stops, we were able to get out and run and get some easy baskets.”
How did it feel finally controlling a game start to finish?
“It felt good, for sure,” Smith said. “I think that once we’re able to do it more consistently, then that’ll really give us momentum going forward. If we can continuously get those good starts, it would really set us up for the rest of the game for momentum.”
As Saturday’s third star, 12 points and seven rebounds, before co-starring guards Moses Moody, a game-high 26 points and eight rebounds, and point guard Jalen Tate, 25 point and eight rebounds, Smith posted by far his best game in his third game back since missing four games with ankle surgery.
“I think it’s just kind of a day-by-day, game-by-game basis,” Smith, who injured his ankle during the Dec. 30 SEC opening victory over Auburn at Auburn, Ala., said Saturday. “Against Alabama, I was able to play but I wasn’t anywhere near where I had been. And then against Auburn (last Wednesday at Walton) I felt a little bit more comfortable. And today, I felt even a little bit more comfortable out there. Our athletic training staff is doing a great job with me. We’re just going to take it day-by-day and just see how it goes.”
Overshadowed by the Moody, Tate and Smith performances but not unnoticed by their coach, Musselman cited the off the bench contributions of guards JD Notae and Jacksonville’s Devo Davis, forward Vance Jackson and starting center Connor Vanover.
“I thought each guy who checked into the game did a really good job,” Musselman said.
Arkansas, 12-4 overall, 4-4 in the SEC, next plays the Ole Miss Rebels, 8-6, 3-4, in Wednesday night’s 7:30 SEC Network televised SEC game at Walton Arena.