No. 13 Arkansas will try rise to the SEC challenge when it hosts No. 20 Missouri on Wednesday to begin a challenging stretch of conference play.
The Razorbacks (11-2, 0-1 SEC) lost their conference opener 60-57 at unranked LSU on Dec. 28. After facing Missouri (12-1, 1-0) on Wednesday in Fayetteville, they will travel to No. 22 Auburn on Saturday and host No. 7 Alabama next week.
“I think everybody is going to understand how hard this league is and how many games come down to the last minute and a half,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “We’ve talked about that since we got together way early in the summer. We’ve got two guys that have SEC experience, so there’s going to be a lot of learning lessons for this team early on for sure.”
The SEC features five teams in the Top 25 this week plus two teams that just fell out of the ranking.
“It’s the conference,” Arkansas forward Makhi Mitchell said. “Coach has been preaching it all summer since the first day we got here about SEC play. He tries to bring everything that we do back to the SEC. All the little things are really important when it comes to SEC play. Every night is going to be like that. It’s a dogfight, and we have to be ready to play every night.”
That challenge for Arkansas has been increased by the loss of former Missouri forward Trevon Brazile to a season-ending knee injury and the absence of potential NBA lottery pick Nick Smith Jr. due to nagging knee soreness.
Guards Ricky Council IV (17.9 points per game) and Anthony Black (12.2) have been shouldering a bigger offensive load due to those injuries.
The Razorbacks are catching the Tigers coming off consecutive upset victories. Missouri routed then-No. 16 Illinois 93-71 on Dec. 22 in a neutral-site game at St. Louis and ran past then-No. 19 Kentucky 89-75 on Dec. 28 at home. Neither team was in this week’s Top 25.
In those two games Missouri forward Kobe Brown scored 61 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished 10 assists.
Brown and Ronnie DeGray III are the only two holdovers from the Cuonzo Martin era in the playing rotation for first-year Missouri coach Dennis Gates.
The group melded quickly and overcame the 95-67 wallop they absorbed from Kansas on Dec. 10 at home.
“It’s only a loss if you don’t learn from the situation,” Gates said. “I don’t think our guys blinked one bit and they stayed connected with each other and that’s the most important thing.”
The Tigers have five players averaging double-figure points, led by guard D’Moi Hodge (16.5) and Brown (15.6). Brown credits solid team chemistry among the players who transferred in from Cleveland State, Milwaukee, Northern Iowa and John A. Logan College.
“We’re just, like I always say, a bunch of guys that love each other and just like to play basketball,” Brown said. “So whenever you have that in a program, it’s like, it’s big time. It makes things easy.”
–Field Level Media