Arkansas vs Kentucky: Musselman Has Fun with Idea of Adopting Shirtless NFL Star Center

Arkansas basketball continues to reach new lows in their fifth season under head coach Eric Musselman. The Hogs fell to Ole Miss on the road Wednesday night to drop to 10-9 overall and 1-5 in SEC play while virtually erasing any remaining NCAA Tournament hope.

This is the Hogs’ worst 19-game start since 2015-16 when they started 9-10 and finished 16-16 (9-9).

“These guys are working,” Musselman said, “but when the game hits, opposition is outrebounding us, outshooting us, outscoring us.”

The Hogs’ 51 points against the Rebels were also tied for the fewest ever under Musselman, matching the 51 points they scored against Auburn to open SEC play this season. Truly a baffling stat given the offensive potential and individual scoring weapons on the roster.

One of those talented players and Arkansas’ leading scorer, Houston transfer Tramon Mark, was unable to suit up Wednesday due to migraines he had reportedly been dealing with all week, preventing him from practicing.

The Hogs should be hopeful that their leader can get healthy and return soon, because just three short days after yet another embarrassing double-digit defeat, College GameDay will be on Arkansas’ campus for the first time in program history to cover the game between Arkansas and No. 6 Kentucky.

The Wildcats are 14-4 (4-2) on the season despite dropping their most recent game against South Carolina – one of the teams that has already handed Arkansas a double-digit home loss. Saturday’s matchup is scheduled to tipoff at 5 p.m. CT and will be televised on ESPN.

Kentucky Basketball Fans’ Despair

After a scorching hot start to SEC play, the Wildcats are limping into this matchup after arguably their worst performance of the season in a 79-62 loss to South Carolina on the road. That’s the same Gamecocks team that beat Arkansas a week ago by 13 points inside Bud Walton Arena.

Kentucky’s loss has put some Kentucky basketball fans in a dour mood that nearly matches the feeling of despair permeating the Razorback fanbase.

Given Eric Musselman’s track record of success against Kentucky, one Wildcats fan is far from optimistic about UK’s chances in Fayetteville.

“I’m not feeling confident about any road games with the awful performance we put on” vs South Carolina, RMorris33 wrote on the Cats Illustrated message board. “We face an even tougher environment Saturday at Bud Walton. GameDay will be in Fayetteville for the first time ever, Hogs will likely play their best game of the season, 25% shooters will bank in three’s from the rafters, mid game hugs and smiles after ridiculous shots go in, t-shirt night, etc.”

BlueWorldOrder 7 chimed in: “Feel like we could be in trouble. Arkansas will be all jacked up on Mountain Dew for sure… I hate their coach. But Cal loves to give these coaches big wins.”

Heading into Arkansas-Kentucky on Saturday morning, Musselman at least was having some fun with the ESPN College GameDay hosts when he was asked what he thought of seven-time NFL Pro Bowler Jason Kelce taking his shirt off in wild celebration during the Kansas City Chiefs-Buffalo Bills playoff game last weekend.

“I can’t imagine why anybody would do that,” Musselman said in mock disbelief, as ESPN ran clips of his past shirtless celebrations in the aftermath of big wins. He then joked about the 36-year-old Kelce, who plays for Philadelphia, being “my new son.”

No doubt, that’s the kind of legal adoption Sam Pittman, the offensive line coach turned Razorback football head man, could get behind.

See the whole exchange here:

Previewing Kentucky Basketball

Oh, what Arkansas basketball fans would do for “only” a single, unexplainable horrible loss in conference play so far. Yes, the Wildcats also lost a tight one at Texas A&M, but for much of the season has still been among the elite teams in the country. They’re averaging nearly 90 points as a team on 40% 3-point shooting on the season, including 92.8 points and 37% from long range in SEC play prior to their loss to South Carolina.

They are led offensively by an explosive guard in Antonio Reeves (6-4, Sr.). The fifth-year senior is averaging 19.2 points and 4.4 rebounds on nearly 43% from long range, including roughly 22 points per game over his last eight games.

Last season, Reeves poured in a career high 37 points against Arkansas in Fayetteville to lead them to a road victory. Things even got a bit chippy between Reeves and Razorback guard Davonte Davis, resulting in Davis being ejected from the game. Don’t be surprised to see these two match up once again in this contest.

Rob Dillingham (6-2, Fr.) and Tre Mitchell (6-9, Sr.) are each averaging just under 14 points and over 3 assists per game, while Mitchell is leading the team with 7.5 rebounds per game. The Wildcats move the ball very well as a team, averaging 18.3 assists per game (No. 7 in the country) and assisting on 56% of their made field goals. By comparison, Arkansas ranks No. 305 in team assists with 11.5 per game, assisting only 44% of their made field goals.

Another pair of freshman guards rounds out arguably Kentucky’s best five players: D.J. Wagner (6-3) and Reed Sheppard (6-3). Wagner is averaging 12.2 points and 3.8 assists, but Sheppard has been the breakout surprise superstar of virtually the entire college basketball landscape.

He’s contributing 11.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists (team high) and 2.4 steals per game – ranking him No. 13 in the country in this stat. Perhaps the most impressive part of his game is how efficient he is as a scorer.

He’s shooting an absurd 55% from beyond the arc this season and is selective with his shots, averaging only the sixth-most shot attempts on the team this season. Sheppard’s high basketball IQ and efficient shooting are arguably the worst combination Arkansas could face in a player right now given their struggles on both sides of the ball.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect from Arkansas basketball at this point. After dropping another double-digit loss at home, the Hogs rolled out their 10th different starting lineup of the season on Wednesday night against Ole Miss, one that featured Denijay Harris for the first time this season. Part of this had to do Tramon Mark being unavailable. Part of it was Eric Musselman still trying to find a five-man lineup that would give him full effort.

Unfortunately, the attempt to change things up was futile and the Razorback team we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent weeks made another appearance. There was no flow to the offense and very little resistance on the defensive side of the ball for most of the game.

Along with the absence of Mark, Trevon Brazile missed the entire second half with knee soreness, Devo Davis was benched as a coach’s decision and Khalif Battle limped off the court before later re-entering the game in the closing minutes.

One of the only bright spots during this game was the mini-run Arkansas strung together with one of its smallest lineups of the season, consisting of Keyon Menifield (6-1), Layden Blocker (6-2), El Ellis (6-3), Khalif Battle (6-5) and Jalen Graham (6-9).

This group showed long overdue effort on the defensive end and was quick enough to several long rebounds to overcome their lack of height for a few minutes in the game, even cutting a once 15-point lead down to seven a few minutes before halftime.

Even though this lineup could never pull the Hogs all the way back into the game, it at least showed some signs of life – which is more than can be said for several other lineups this season.

Don’t be surprised to see Musselman deploy a similar strategy against Kentucky. Perhaps we will see Davenport and Mark (if healthy) primarily running the four-spot with some combination of three guards and a rotating center position.

Joseph Pinion also deserves his flowers for being ready when his number was called. He played 22 minutes in this game and tallied 10 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound and 3 blocks while shooting 50% from the field 40% from long range and a perfect 2-of-2 from the free throw line. It’s possible he could see his role increased moving forward thanks to the much-needed offense he provides to this struggling squad.

He’s still targeted a lot on isos but his defense is improving. Not only did he lead the team in blocks, but he also tied for the lead in deflection alongside Denijay Harris.

“You look at his minutes, he’s been as productive, if not more productive, in his minutes than a lot of guys that are playing more minutes than him,” Musselman said on Friday. He added Pinion is doing better at keeping his man in front of him and “getting low defensively. He works every day. He follows the game plan.”

Nobody is pretending that Pinion playing well enough to get consistent minutes game by game is going to make the difference in turning the season around for the Hogs by itself. However, his continued high effort – especially on defense – may indicate that there is a turning of the corner in the defensive IQ department that could spread to more athletic, talented players.

Such a shift, with Pinion leading the way in the effort department, would actually be a needle mover for Arkansas basketball’s fate this year. Lot of ifs, of course, but the theoretical hope is there.

What to Watch: Arkansas vs Kentucky

Perhaps the most redeeming possibility for Razorback fans to cling on to heading into this matchup is Arkansas’ tendency to show up when the lights are brightest – and only then. When preseason No. 3 Purdue came to town for a charity exhibition, the Hogs looked like a national contender.

A few weeks later, when college basketball powerhouse Duke paid a visit, Arkansas once again showed how much talent it has when they can put it all together. Even most recently against Texas A&M when the Razorbacks had their backs against the wall, they came out with an impressive first half and managed to stay collected amidst a Texas A&M (read as: Wade Taylor IV) comeback attempt, hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer to earn their first SEC win.

Perhaps now, with College GameDay in the building and one of the premiere blue bloods in college basketball opposing them, we’ll get a glimpse of the competitive, cohesive team Arkansas has proven to be only a handful of times this season.

It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is only 2-2 in true road games this year, including 1-2 in SEC games. They’re averaging 80.3 points on 43% FG, 33% 3P, and 71% free throw shooting in such games, all far below their season averages.

The Hogs have not often been a menacing defensive team, but perhaps the combined factors of Kentucky already struggling on the road and a raucous Bud Walton Arena crowd will help the Razorbacks limit the Wildcats enough offensively to make this a competitive game.

Game Prediction

Prior to Eric Musselman arriving in Fayetteville, Arkansas had lost seven consecutive games to Kentucky, dating back to 2014-15 – the year after Michael Qualls put the Wildcats on ice with a game-winning putback slam at the buzzer, resulting in one of the greatest plays in any sport in Razorback history.

Since Musselman arrived, however, Arkansas has gone 3-2 against John Calipari’s Wildcats, including defeating a then-ranked No. 6 Kentucky team in Bud Walton Arena.

Kentucky will once again come to town as the No. 6 team in the country, and it will likely be out for blood after suffering an embarrassing 17-point defeat to South Carolina in its last game.

Arkansas will show some life in front of a rowdy home crowd, perhaps shooting the ball better as a team than it has in several games, but the Wildcats’ talent will ultimately prevail.

Kentucky wins, 88-74

How to Watch Arkansas vs Kentucky

Date: Saturday, Jan. 27

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 5 p.m. CT (ESPN)ESPN BPI: Kentucky has a 70.7% chance to win, favored by 6.4 points.

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