FAYETTEVILLE – For the first time since Nolan Richardson’s 1998 Arkansas Razorbacks attending fans plus an ESPN2 television audience tonight will from Walton Arena view competing nationally ranked men’s basketball teams.
Coach Eric Musselman’s nationally Associated Press 20th ranked Razorbacks 17-5 overall and tied for SEC second at 9-4 with LSU, and Coach Nate Oats’ AP ranked No. 6 Alabama Crimson Tide, 18-5 overall/ and 13-1 first place in the SEC, pick up where No. 16 Arkansas vs. No. 13 South Carolina left off Feb. 18, 1998 at Walton.
Tonight’s game, with covid-19 restrictions limiting attendance, tips off at 8.
Asked about Walton’s first nationally ranked clash since 1998, Musselman smiled in reply.
“I was a lot younger then,” Musselman, 56, said. “I’m just worried about this year and how do we win this game? Alabama’s had an outstanding year. When we played them the first month of the year their offense was like Lamborghini and our offense was like a Prius.”
The Tide rolled, 90-59 over Arkansas on Jan. 16 at Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama looks no less capable of rolling tonight than on Jan. 16.
“Obviously, you look at Alabama and I think they’re as talented as any team in the country,” Musselman said. “They have three seniors, guys with great experience in Herb Jones and (John) Petty and (Alex) Reese. (Plus Yale grad transfer forward Jordan Bruner) Their entire roster is really, really talented. And they have two players test the [NBA Draft] waters in Herb Jones and Petty, and both those guys came back and they kind of spearhead this thing for Alabama. It’d kind of be like us getting Mason (Jones) and Isaiah (Joe) back.”
Razorbacks 2019-2020 underclassmen Jones and Joe now respectively play for the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA.
The Tide runs deep. Big and adept up front with Bruner, Jones and Reese it most flows from its’ guards Jaden Shackelford and Petty.
Normally, Arkansas 6-6 point guard Jalen Tate guards the opponent’s best guard. Tate knows against Alabama that means both depending upon circumstances. They tallied a team leading 17 and 16 points on Arkansas when the Tide trounced in Tuscaloosa
“You just have to stick to your principles,” Tate said. “Obviously do both, as far as taking away the three and those guys are good playmakers. You’ve got to take away the drive too. With those guys like that, you want to make sure you just try not to let them see anything go in early, nothing easy, make them earn every single one of their baskets the entire game. You just try to keep a body in between them and the basket and make them score over me the entire time.”
The Tide could roll big again tonight but likely won’t.
Arkansas, winning seven consecutive SEC games and zoomed from unranked to 24th and now 20th these past two week, seems a different team than when trashed in Tuscaloosa.
Graduate transfer forward Justin Smith, first-tike testing the waters in Tuscaloosa returning from the ankle injury and surgery costing him four games, now is healthy and playing superbly.
And a cast mostly of transfers and freshmen and returning junior Desi Sills has found its footing with their roles and each other.
“We obviously have to play a lot better basketball than we did in Tuscaloosa,” Musselman said. “But think from being ranked two weeks in a row, moving up in the rankings, kind of puts things in perspective for probably our staff a little bit as well as the players.
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.”
Under normal circumstances, even with a made for TV midweek late start, second-place Arkansas vs. first-place Alabama would pack Walton Arena’ 19,000 capacity.
Because of covid-19 restrictions, the Walton Arena crowd remains limited to 4,000 tonight.
(END OF STORY, LINEUPS FOLLOW)
ARKANSAS (17-5, 9-4)
F-Justin Smith 6-7 Sr. 11.8 pts. 6.4 rebs.
C-Connor Vanover 7-3 So. 7.9 5.5
G-Jalen Tate 6-6 Sr. 11.1 3.6
G-Moses Moody 6-6 Fr. 16.2 5.6
G-Davonte Davis 6-3 Fr. 7.2 3.6
ALABAMA (18-5, 13-1)
F-Herbert Jones 6-9 Sr. 11.7 pts. 5.7 rebs.
F-Jordan Bruner 6-10 Sr. 7.4 5.7
G-Jahvon Quinerly 6-1 So. 11.7 1.9
G-Jaden Shackelford 6-3 So.14.5 4.0
G-John Petty 6-5 Jr. 13.0 5.1