Fri December 29, 2023

By Lance Hawley

Hogs to Host UNC Wilmington on Saturday
By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas returns to the court following a break for Christmas with UNC Wilmington coming to Bud Walton Arena on Saturday at 4 p.m. on the SEC Network.

Arkansas (8-4) will host UNC Wilmington (9-2) in the last non-conference game before beginning SEC play the following Saturday when Auburn comes to Fayetteville. Eric Musselman talked about the Hogs only playing five games this month and how the team has handled the down time.

  "Yeah, I think once we get into a normal rhythm, which finals throws you off the rhythm," Musselman said. "It wasn't that long ago where we did not have a Christmas break, you know? I mean, when I played we never went home for Christmas and I know at Nevada, at least the first year or two, there was no Christmas break. I think the guys have done great. I mean, we've been able to go two-a-days prior to the last game. We've gotten two-a-days since we came back from our Christmas break. It's allowed us to clean some things up offensively. It's allowed us to do prep. It's allowed us, hopefully, to see some of the holes that we have in areas that we have to have growth at."

UNC Wilmington has already played an SEC game. They went to Lexington on Dec. 2 and handed Kentucky an 80-73 loss. Musselman talked about Saturday's opponent including junior forward Trazarien White, 6-7, 190, who is averaging 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. UNC Wilmington is 5-1 in road games counting the win in Rupp Arena. 

"One, they’re a deep team," Musselman said. "Two, they have a great star in No. 13, White, who can really score, is a high volume free throw attempt player. They’ll isolate him in a zipper play for him to drive the ball hard. They have three-point shooting surrounding 13, White. [Donovan] Newby’s a really good shooter, No. 1. [KJ] Jenkins, No. 0, is an incredible shooter. [Noah] Ross can make shots at the power forward spot. [Nolan] Hodge can make shots. Both of their backup bigs, both of them, can make 3s. And then they have a point guard in [Shykeim] Phillips, who is a really, really steady, heady smart, excellent mid-range shooter. And then they have a point guard in Phillips who is a steady, heady, smart, excellent midrange shooter. Good dribble-driver. Really good player inside of 17 feet. 

"They know their roles. They play with a good pace offensively. Defensively, they'll deny a little bit at times. They have a little bit of a ¾ court press they'll do at times. They'll switch a lot defensively. We've had enough time to dissect many of their games. You mentioned they've played well on the road. They've got a great record. It's a team I'm sure in their conference will be at the top of their conference. Those are some of their characteristics. Interestingly enough, there one center played like 40 minutes on the season. He played 20 minutes against Kentucky and hit a big three. That being No. 23 (Eric Van Der Heijden), and 30 Nick Farrar) is their normal backup center. He did not play much against Kentucky, but in other games he's a three-dimensional scorer who can score on the block, score facing up and make threes. (Khamari) McGriff, 21, who starts at center, is an active player who rebounds. And then right around the 16:40 mark, they're going to sub five guys at a time. Hockey-line sub. Against Kentucky, they did that hockey-line sub again at the 12-minute mark. It's a team that is very, very dangerous. It's a  team that is very well coached. It's a team that understands their roles. And it's a team that has two stars surrounded by really good perimeter players, and it's a very, very old team. I mean, they've got some veterans on this team that have played at multiple schools and have played multiple years of college basketball." 

UNC Wilmington has four players averaging in double figures scoring. In addition to White, Phillips is averaging 14.2 points, Maleeck Harden-Hayes 11.8 and Jenkins 10.0 per game. Musselman went to a four-guard lineup in the second half against Abilene Christian.

"We played with pace," Musselman said. "We played with energy. We got to loose balls quicker. Our post defense, actually Devo Davis played as good of post defense as anybody we had. He was the one guy that fronted the post. He was the one guy that worked around the three quarter. Just the pace. I thought we shared the ball better. We had a sense of energy about our team, as well. And then we become harder to guard when we do that, as well."

Musselman was asked if there's a concern about rebounding when playing four guards?

"I mean, I don’t think that I’ve ever said that we’re rolling that lineup out," Musselman said. "You’re talking about our last game against a team that didn’t have great size. Never one time have I said ‘Hey, we’re rolling with this four guard lineup. Here’s who the four guards (are)’ 

  "We’re still trying to figure out who we are, just as we have the last four years. We don’t have a ton of continuity with returners, as do many teams across the country right now in all sports. What we do against Wilmington is not necessarily what we’ve done against Wilmington, or Abilene Christian or certainly not what we’ll do against Auburn. I think every game takes on its own identity. Every game, you try to mix and match and try to figure out….You know, the way that we’re going to defend Wilmington is not the way that we defended Abilene Christian. 

"You want your core philosophies to be there. Whether we go four guard lineup against teams that press, maybe that happens. Maybe a big is playing really well and you don’t want to take him off the floor. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do think that that group in that particular game they played very, very well together."

Musselman went into more detail about upsets happening in college basketball including UNC Wilmington's win over Kentucky.

"All you’ve got to do is look at Wilmington’s record and that should, you know … that lets you know how good they are," Musselman said. "We try to schedule teams that are really good. That’s the object of what we do. We don’t sit in the office in non-conference and say, ‘Hey, how many wins can we get? Let’s just schedule wins.’ You schedule people you think can challenge you. You schedule people that you think are going to have good [seasons]. Them beating Kentucky, it’s not good for the SEC, but it’s good for our strength of schedule if they beat a Power 5 team. That’s good for us that Wilmington has had success. 

"For us, we have to come ready to play. I know as a coaching staff we have as much respect for Wilmington as any team we’ll play all season long, because they’ve got a star player, they’ve got a secondary star, they’ve got great surrounding pieces. I mean, Todd Lee, he [coached] against their starting small forward Harden-Hayes and knows his game really well from the Summit League. They crash the offensive boards. They do a lot of things really, really well."    

  Photos Courtesy of Craven Whitlow CW3 Sports Action