By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ severe exhibition game test came one game early.
Anticipating a close contest with defending Conference USA champion and 2021 NCAA Tournament victor North Texas next Saturday in the final of two exhibition games at Walton Arena,
Coach Eric Musselman’s coming off the NCAA Elite Eight Razorbacks were stunned and nearly defeated Sunday at Walton by the East Central University Tigers of Division II and Ada, Okla.
The Razorbacks trailed by 14 (60-46) with 11:02 left in the game, regained the lead, lost it again down 72-71 with 56 seconds left then regained it and survived a time expiring ECU 3-point try to prevail, 77-74.
Exhibition games don’t officially count, but an Arkansas loss to a Division II team just 10-9 last year now under first-year coach and former Arkansas graduate assistant Max Pendery would have reverberated nationally with the Razorbacks ranked 16th in the preseason AP poll.
The Hogs nearly floundered from making just 17 of 29 free throws, only 2 of the first 9 digging themselves a hole trailing most the first half finished down, 37-35, and getting outscored, 24-6 on 3-pointers making just 2 of 16 to ECU’s 8 of 23.
“I am shocked how poorly we shot the ball from the foul line and from three,” Musselman said. “Behind closed doors
we have not seen lack of shooting like we did today. There are fifth grade CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) teams that can shoot that good from the foul line.”
The Hogs return just five, only guard Devo Davis as a regular starter and All-SEC sixth man guard JD Notae now starting, and it showed trying to mesh four transfers and a freshman with their holdovers plus minus injured power forward transfers Trey Wade and Kamani Johnson.
“We never played with each other (vs. another team),” Au’Diese Toney, the graduate transfer via the University of Pittsburgh, said. “That’s why we’re having these games now to learn from them.”
Musselman said he learned the Hogs aren’t in the condition he had presumed and that they really miss Jalen Tate and Justin Smith, last season’s defensive oriented point guard and defensive oriented power forward.
“I thought our overall physical conditioning shocked me with how winded we were, even the first six minutes of the game” Musselman said. “Absolutely, I was astonished at the lack of physical conditioning that we exhibited early in the game.”
Defensively the Hogs found their biggest problems to be ECU forward Josh Apple, a game-leading 23 points including 3 of 4 threes, and guard Jalen Crutchfield, the son of Oregon assistant coach Chris Cruthchield, the former Razorbacks assistant under Musselman and last season’s OCU head coach.
Jalen Crutchfield scored 15 points including 3 of 8 threes.
“Defensively as a staff we have to do a better job,” Musselman said. “Because we have some guys that aren’t individual defenders like last year. Jalen Tate and Justin Smith just locked people up. And we don’t have those individual defenders.”
And while the Hogs only committed 10 turnovers to ECU’s, ECU dished 14 assists to Arkansas’ mere nine.
“Nine assists to 10 turnovers,” Musselman said. “You are not going to win many games with nine assists. We’ve got to get way more solid play out of that point guard position to compete at a high level.”
Still, the Hogs did rally to win. They first tied it from down 14 to 64-64 on Jaylin Williams tip-in with 5:33 left, led 66-64 on a Notae deflection and ensuing bucket off an assist by transfer guard Chris Lykes via the University of Miami, appeared real to run away with it up 69-64.
But Apple’s trey put ECU up one last time, 73-72, before two Davis free throws put Arkansas up, 74-73 followed by Toney absorbing a charging call on Apple compelling ECU fouling Lykes with 22 seconds left. Lykes sunk them both, and Notae sank one at :05, fouled after Brennen Burns sank two ECU free throws at :06.
Davis, the Preseason All-SEC Second-Team sophomore from Jacksonville led Arkansas with 20 points. Notae scored 13 and Lykes 13. Toney double-doubled with a game-leading 15 rebounds and 10 points while 6-10 returning sophomore center Jaylin Williams scored 10n with nine rebounds and blocked three shots.
“There were some positives,” Musselman said, also giving ECU credit. “But again I can go back and give you a positive and four negatives. We’re not sitting here saying we don’t have a lot of work to do because we do.”