Wed December 20, 2023

By Lance Hawley

Hogs Host Abilene Christian
By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas will return to the court Thursday night to host Abilene Christian at 6 p.m. and televised on the SEC Network.

Arkansas (7-4) hasn't played since Saturday when they defeated Lipscomb in North Little Rock. Abilene Christian (5-6) enters the game owning a two-game winning streak. Eric Musselman has taken advantage of the schedule and no classes to get in some productive practices.

"Yeah, practices have been very good," Musselman said. "We’ve been doing morning defense, come back in the afternoon and do offense, much like an NBA training camp many years ago. We haven’t gone … the time frame hasn’t been long. Like an hour and 35 minutes each practice. Yesterday we went only about 45 minutes for the offense. We’’ll go this morning and then we’ll come back this evening and just do shooting, which will be non-coach related. Just the guys at Bud Walton get shots up for 20-30 minutes."

Musselman likes the vibe from his basketball team.

"I mean this team always has a good vibe," Musselman said. "We’ve had great practices. I don’t think I’ve talked to you guys much at all about this team not having good practices, or this team not having good shoot-arounds. They’ve actually been as good a team as any team we’ve had. They get along. A group of them went to dinner last night. They’ve got to figure out and we have to figure out the chemistry on the floor. You know most of the teams it’s off-floor, practice, we don’t have any of that. Where it really counts between the lines is what we’ve got to get better at. The practices go smooth and the shoot-arounds go great. They know all the questions when we quiz them on personnel. They’ve got to figure out once they hit the floor how we can play better basketball as does our staff have to figure it out."

Former Little Rock Parkview standout Airion Simmons, 6-5, 264, is one of the standouts on Abilene Christian. He's averaging 13.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Musselman talked about Simmons.

"He’s an excellent player," Musselman said. "He’s a guy who can make 3s. He’s a three-level scorer. He’s a guy who can post up. He’s a really good passer. You know he’s a vital part of their team, plays the 4 spot for them. They’ll put him on elbows and run backdoor cuts with him as a passer. Like I said, he’s a guy who can make threes and stretches the defense out."

Abilene Christian has shot 294 free throws this season making 213 of them. Musselman talked about them getting to the charity stripe frequently.

"Yeah, they do a great job attacking the rim," Musselman said. "They do a great job of high-low. Their bigs do a great job of ducking in. Obviously No. 24 (Ali Abdou Dibba) at the small forward spot does a great job of turning the corner. They’ll run a DHO and he’ll turn the corner. They’ll put a dribble-drive guy on the elbow and let him dribble drive. Their backup point guard, No. 10 (Nasir DeGruy), does a good job dribble driving. (Hunter Jack) Madden, 21, is kind of a combo guard. He did a great job against UTEP drawing FTAs. Simmons can draw fouls. Their starting 4 and 5, (Cameron) Steele and Simmons, can make threes, so that opens up the floor for dribble-drive guys like 24. And then their two backups at the 4 and the 5, those guys are post-up guys. And obviously when you hard duck-in and you go high-low, those will be able to create free throw attempt situations for people as well."

Some have questioned the on-court chemistry with the Hogs this season. Musselman was asked if that is an issue?

"I’ve run into the exact opposite," Musselman said. "This is a first. I’m learning on the fly, because our practices are good. Work ethic is good in practice. We’ve just got to carry over what we do behind closed doors onto the floor. And it can also just be a product of … look at the records of the teams we have lost to. It’s no excuse whatsoever. But Oklahoma is a top-12 team in the country. Memphis, look at the wins Memphis has had. Look at North Carolina, where they’ve been [and] national player of the year-type player in the post.

"We have lost to three really good teams, and you add in UNCG, they played well up until last night. It happens every night. UCLA lost last night to Cal State Northridge, and Cal State Northridge played phenomenal basketball. I think you’re seeing a changing of the way college basketball is right now. We’ve talked about it since opening night, about the number of upsets, so to speak or quote-unquote, that happen in college basketball. It’s, in my opinion, I’ve never seen more this year than the last 9-10 years."

Arkansas won't play after this game until Dec. 30 when UNC-Wilmington comes to Bud Walton Arena for a 4 p.m. tip.