FAYETTEVILLE – What once seemed a Christmas present for the Razorbacks to feel good about themselves heading into a brief holiday before prepping for the SEC opener Dec. 29 at Mississippi State suddenly becomes the most important game of the nonconference preseason.
For while at one time tonight’s 6 o’clock SEC Network televised game at Walton Arena vs. the 3-9 Elon University Phoenix appeared an Arkansas gimme, nothing looks like a gimme now for these Razorbacks.
Their 9-0 start and at one time No. 10 national ranking ruined by successive 88-66 losses to the Oklahoma Sooners in Tulsa and last Saturday night’s stunning, 89-81 loss to Hofstra University at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, the Razorbacks finished so badly against Hofstra that Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman during the immediate postgame admitted disarray even thinking of preparing for Tuesday’s tilt vs. Elon.
“We’ve got two days before our next game and I have no idea what we’ll do,” Musselman said last Saturday in North Little Rock. “Not sure what we’ll do the next two days in preparation for our next game.”
Hard practices was Musselman’s remedy post the Dec. 11 trouncing in Tulsa by OU.
He doesn’t have that option pre Elon.
The Hogs used Sunday as their off day after arriving in Fayetteville late following Saturday night’s game in North Little Rock and had just Monday’s hour and a half practice and today’s shoot-around before tonight’s game.
“We worked on shell defense today and did a lot of defensive drills,” Musselman said Monday afternoon following a morning practice. “We’ll see between tomorrow’s game and then when we have the three or four days preparation before we go to Mississippi State to get ready for conference play as well. So I think tomorrow’s game is a little bit more about us and us becoming better at what our core principles are on both sides of the ball.”
Following tonight’s game the Razorbacks are free for Christmas until reassembling Christmas night in Fayetteville for the first practice leading into the Dec. 29 SEC opener at Mississippi State in Starkville.
Losing this December nonconference finale at Walton to Elon would represent a true tailspin for the reeling Razorbacks only last season, 25-7 and advancing all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
Musselman recalled last season’s Razorbacks absorbing drubbings at LSU and at Alabama but always showing more fight than he saw from Oklahoma and Hofstra running away with the game down the stretch.
“In the seven years I’ve been coaching college, that’s the most disappointing from a competitive nature that I’ve ever coached a team,” Musselman said postgame last Saturday. “Even last year’s two losses. I’m disappointed in how we’ve played in a lot of different facets.”
He enumerated facets.
“We’ve been searching for point guard play,’ Musselman said. “I tried to search again tonight. All of a sudden we go back to struggling with rebounding. We’re turning the ball over too much. We lack shooting. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to continue to try to work on, and then you add in how competitive you are, now you end up with two losses in a row.”
Elon’s 3-9 record seems like an easy cure. Until considering Elon’s schedule. Coach Mike Schrage’s Phoenix’s losses include Florida, West Virginia, Ole Miss, Temple, Jacksonville State, UNC Greensboro, High Point, North Carolina and Duke.
Not exactly Cupcake Row. Elon has beaten Winthrop last season a 23-2 Big South champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier.
“I kept stopping the video and showing , especially in the first half against North Carolina, their scores,” Musselman said Monday of Elon. “Up one, 23-22. And they’ve hung around with a lot of those teams for stretches of games. Obviously when teams have played multiple games in that environment, I think they’re not going to walk in here tomorrow — if you’ve played at Duke and played at UNC — you’re battle-tested as far as playing on the road.
Elon plays in the same Colonial Athletic Association that produced Hofstra.
The Phoenix presents balanced scoring with guards Hunter McIntosh, Torrence Watson, and Darius Buford and small forward Zac Ervin averaging from 11.3 to 10.4 points while 6-8 center Michael Graham averages a team-leading 6.2 rebounds.