FAYETTEVILLE – X marks the spot why these LSU Tigers that Arkansas plays tonight in the Walton Arena season finale aren’t the same LSU Tigers that the Razorbacks defeated, 65-58 on Jan. 15 in Baton Rouge, La.
Arkansas, 23-6 and nationally ranked tied for 14th with Houston and in the SEC, 12-4 and tied for second with the Kentucky and Tennessee teams the Razorbacks have beaten at Walton, and LSU, 20-9 overall, 8-8 in the SEC, tip off at 8 p.m. on ESPN2 at Walton.
It’s the second to last regular season game for both teams. Arkansas closes visiting nationally No 13 Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn at 11 a.m. on ESPN Saturday.
LSU at 11 a.m. Saturday on CBS hosts Alabama in Baton Rouge leading into next week’s SEC Tournament in Tampa, Fla.
LSU ranked 12th nationally when the Razorbacks prevailed in Baton Rouge but the X factor, point guard Xavier Pinson, actually makes these currently unranked Tigers more formidable now than when Arkansas last played them.
Pinson, the former Missouri Tigers guard transferred this season to be an LSU Tiger, missed the Arkansas game among the six games he missed upon injuring his knee during LSU’s Jan. 8 victory over Tennessee.
Coach Will Wade’s hot-starting 14-1 Tigers, floundered 2-4 in the games that Pinson missed and lost at home to Ole Miss upon Pinson’s rusty return.
However with Pinson healthier the Tigers have won 4 of their last 6. Pinson scored 26 points with eight assists when they battled nationally No. 6 Kentucky, a team they beat in Baton Rouge in January, in hotly contested 6-point loss at Lexington, Ky.
Pinson scored 10 points with three assists when his LSU Tigers thumped his old Mizzou Tigers, 75-55 last Saturday in Baton Rouge.
“It’s pretty simple,” Wade said. said. “He (Pinson) makes everybody better. He’s able to find the hot hand.”
Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman noted the difference.
“Without Pinson in Game One it’s a different, a completely different challenge guarding them in preparation than when Xavier Pinson doesn’t play,” Musselman said.
Pinson poses perplexing problems.
“Pinson is really quick with the basketball,” Musselman said. “He’s done a good job increasing his volume of assists this year in LSU’s system. Really quick off the bounce. Can make 3s. Can score in bunches. A high-steal player defensively. He’s a’s a tough cover during the 40-minute game, as well, because he can just score in a variety of ways. Also a guy that can draw free throws attempted, as well, if you’re not overly disciplined when you guard him.”
Arkansas senior star guard JD Notae was asked his recollections of playing against Pinson when Pinson was a Missouri Tiger.
“He’s one of the good guards in the SEC,” Notae said. “We’ve just got to go out there and control what we can control.”
Musselman likened LSU playing minus Pinson against Arkansas in Baton Rouge, to Arkansas losing its SEC opener in December at Mississippi State with Notae medically ordered to stay home in Fayetteville.
“Look, they didn’t have Pinson,” Musselman said. “And when we didn’t have JD Notae, against Mississippi State, really, that wasn’t that Arkansas team. We were missing a key player at a key position. So I look at Coach Wade’s team and when they’ve been fully healthy, they’ve been really good and won a lot of games. And with Pinson back, your game plan is completely and utterly different than it was the first game.”
LSU sports plenty of talented players including Tari Eason, 18 points against Mizzou, and Darius Days known for feast or famine against Arkansas. It was famine when Day fouled shooting 1 for 8 against Arkansas this season in Baton Rouge but Days double-double feasted with 18 points and 13 rebounds when LSU last season thumped Arkansas, 92-76 in Baton Rouge but netted nothing when Arkansas tamed the Tigers last season in Fayetteville.
Certainly the Razorbacks are on a roll entering their Walton finale.
Since their 0-3 SEC start, the Hogs, including their SEC vs. Big 12 Challenge nonconference victory over West Virginia, have won 13 of their last 14 and are playing as well as anybody in the country, Musselman has a told them.
Senior guard Notae enters tonight’s game with ESPN and Andy Katz National Player of the Week and SEC Player of the Week honors after scoring 22 points, with six rebounds and three assists in Arkansas’ 82-74 victory at Florida and an incredible 30 points and eight assists in last Saturday’s 75-73 victory over Kentucky at Walton.
Sophomore center Jaylin Williams has posted six consecutive scoring/rebounding double-doubles including 16 points and 12 rebounds against Kentucky despite vomiting at halftime because of a stomach virus.
Arkansas streak includes victories over then No. 1 Auburn, then No. 13 Tennessee, and last Saturday over then No. 6 Kentucky but Musselman marvels most at their concentration on the next game after winning a big one.
Even the loss at Alabama, the Hogs mentally were on their game but simply lost to a good (the Tide rank 25th nationally) team playing well at home, Musselman said.
“The most impressive thing is, you win a win game, whether it be Auburn or Tennessee, and you come back and you’re ready for the next game,” Musselman said.
Tonight’s game definitely marks the career home game finale for Razorbacks starting forward Stanley Umude and reserve guard Chris Lykes completing their eligibility as graduate transfers via the University of South Dakota and University of Miami.
Though listed as seniors, Notae and 3-year University of Pittsburgh letterman grad transfer starting guard Au’Diese Toney have the option of returning in 2022-2023 because of the 2020-2021covid season interrupted season.
With so much at stake for this season, Musselman said he and Notae and Toney will discuss their turn pro versus returning options once the campaign concludes.