Razorbacks Set for Alabama

By Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE –  Until his Razorbacks  boarded Friday’s plane to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Eric Musselman knew away from their Eddie Sutton practice facility they would hear nearly 100 percent more about upending No. 1 Auburn last Tuesday night than their game with Alabama Saturday morning.

Arkansas, 19-5 overall, 8-3 in the SEC, play the 15-9, 5-6 in the SEC Alabama Crimson Tide at 11 a.m. Saturday on the SEC Network  at the Tide’s Coleman Coliseum.

Beating Auburn, 80-76 in overtime Tuesday night before a record-setting  20,327 court-storming crowd celebrating upending the first national No. 1 to visit Walton still dominates statewide conversation, particularly if there is a Razorback as an audience.

People are still talking about that game, and that’s just with me only going to lunch,” Musselman said in his Zoom presser Thursday. “These guys, they’re out and about, so they’re going to hear it. You can’t stop it because the fans are excited about it.  But we play two road games (at Alabama Saturday and at Missouri Tuesday) and it’s so hard to win on the road and then a really, really hard home game (Tennessee on Feb 19).  We have to turn the page for sure.”

Last season Alabama destroyed Arkansas’ page, 90-59 in Tuscaloosa though Arkansas avenged, 81-66 at Walton.

Barring an SEC Tournament and or NCAA Tournament matchup, it’s one and done Saturday for these Tide and Razorbacks teams.

Though Arkansas suffered losing 5 of 6 from mid December through early January including starting 0-3 in the SEC, the resurgent Razorbacks from winning nine consecutively   appear well on their NCAA Tournament way.

Likely the same for Coach Nate Oats’ Tide even at its current SEC 5-6. Alabama victories over Baylor, the  reigning national champion ranked fourth at the time, and Gonzaga, the reigning national runner-up  and ranked third at the time,  and at the time nationally ranked Houston, LSU and Tennessee, are hard for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to ignore.

You beat Baylor and you beat Gonzaga … just incredible wins,” Musselman said.

Add the target that Arkansas has put on its own back by upending No. 1 Auburn  to the Tide inspired by whipping Ole Miss, 97-83 Wednesday night in Oxford, Miss. and the Hogs definitely will need their focus entirely on Saturday present and not Tuesday past.

“Obviously they are going to have a great crowd,” Musselman said. “Knowing their crowd can be loud and into it, you can’t let the moment become bigger than what it is.”

Arkansas’ crowd provided a Tuesday testament of its impact against Auburn.  Musselman knows the the Alabama crowd and the Tide can roll together, too.

“It’s for us on the road when you’re playing in front of a good crowd not to let them have large scoring runs,” Musselman said. “And then you add in the fact that Alabama can score in such spurts. That’s going to be really important for us to be able to stick to the defensive script as well as offensively.”

That script likely requires somehow shackling Jaden Shackelford.

The 6-3 junior guard scored 30, including 8 of 13 treys, on Ole Miss while the other half of Alabama’s backcourt duo, Jahvon Quinerly, dished eight assists in Oxford.

“Obviously  Shackleford’s one of the best three-point shooters in the country,” Musselman said. “A  left-handed guy who can also get to the rim.  Quinerly’s  obviously a great dribble drive player. But he’s also a guy that’s perfectly capable of hitting threes with his feet set or off the bounce.”

Shackelford, 17.6 average, and Quinerly, 14.3, lead the Tide scorers.

Keon Ellis, a 6-6, guard, averages  11.8 points and team-leading 6.0 rebounds.  Ellis scored 13 against Ole Miss while freshman guard JD Davison and forward Noah Gurley scored 18 and 10 off the Alabama bench.

Charles Bediako, Alabama’s 7-1 freshman center, has blocked 37 shots.

All but Bediako are capable 3-point shooters.

Three-point defense was an early season Arkansas weakness since resolved.

“We’ve improved drastically across the board defensively,” Musselman said.  “Before we got into SEC play, we knew that we had to make not just small leaps defensively, but we had to make major leaps defensively, and we’ve done that.”

Starting three 6-6 guard-forwards  Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude and Trey Wade, with 6-2 guard JD Notae, 28 points against Auburn, and 6-10 center Jaylin Williams started this nine-game Arkansas winning streak.

But it wouldn’t have continued without displaced starting guard Devo Davis of Jacksonville, five steals and 10 points against Auburn, playing well off the bench as co-sixth man guards with via University of Miami grad transfer Chris Lykes.

“I think he (Davis) is  playing with great confidence,” Musselman said.  “He went from one role to another role, and I think he’s embraced it and is really competing at a high level on both sides of the ball.”

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