I remember a day when college basketball programs filled exhibition dates with traveling teams such as Marathon Oil or Athletes in Action. Teams comprised of former college standouts looking for a shot in professional basketball either in the U.S. or overseas. College teams also used to play foreign national teams to tune up for the upcoming season.
However, now a new trend has developed. Premier programs are playing each other in games that won’t count in the win/loss column or stat page. Arkansas has joined the club on this front, getting throttled at Texas, 90-60, last year. Next up is No. 3-ranked Purdue, which is plays in an exhibition at Saturday at 3 p.m. at Bud Walton Arena.
“I don’t have the stuff in front of me at all, but you go all the way back to Nevada when we played Washington,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said to the media this week. “We scheduled Washington because we felt like we were going to get a whole dose, 40 minutes of zone, which is what we got. Our Nevada teams needed to improve against a zone. They had [Matisse] Thybulle, who is a heck of an NBA defender, at the top of their zone. We were one of the first teams that understood the rule of how you could navigate having a Division I team play you instead of a secret scrimmage. Those are absolutely, unequivocally meaningless. The ones I’ve been a part of, actually a waste of time. I remember San Francisco beating us at Arizona State by 49 points the day after Halloween. It meant nothing at all to our team or anything.
We like the dress rehearsals I think, too, because of the fact that, changing rosters, I think that it’s important. I think this game is really good for Coach [Matt] Painter and Purdue, too, because we’re going to have a great crowd. They’re going to draw crowds wherever Purdue goes. They’re going to be sold out probably every game that they go on the road because they’re ranked so high and because of the returning group that he has, and because they have a national Player of the Year candidate [Zach Edey] that just doesn’t come into opposing buildings often.”
“So, I think this game is going to be great for them, too, to play an exhibition game in front of a crowd that I think right now we’re at 14,000 seats sold. That’s not counting the 3,000 seats that’ll be held for the student body. That’s going to be really, really good for their team, too, to play in front of a good crowd as well.”
Lessons learned from last year’s rout at Texas
Musselman knew in preseason practice last season his young Hogs needed seasoning. He saw the writing on the wall in early October. Arkansas ran into a hornets’ nest in the exhibition game at Texas. The veteran Longhorns had their way with Musselman’s bunch. Some Hogs fans may have been shocked, but the veteran coach wasn’t.
“I did say that we were in for an eye-opening experience based on how we’ve been practicing and understanding the veteran essence of (Texas’) roster and understanding how hard they play,” Musselman said following the butt kicking.
If we have learned one thing about Musselman in his tenure on The Hill, it’s that he’s a resilient competitor who is a masterful X’s an O’s strategist. Nobody in the Musselman Camp panicked, they went to work.
Just a few weeks after the blowout at Texas, Arkansas played very well at the Maui Jim Classic in Hawaii. They blew out Louisville, narrowly lost to then-No. 10 Creighton and beat then-No. 17/19 San Diego State in overtime.
It’s obvious that playing that game in hostile territory against a ultra-talented team helped Musselman pull the right strings to get his team to compete a short time later in big TV games that counted in Hawaii.
And, that game probably helped the rest of the season as Arkansas endured injuries and peaks and valleys on its way to a Sweet 16 run that included an upset of No. 1-seeded Kansas in Des Moines, Iowa in the second round.
Playing Purdue at Bud Walton Arena
Now, it’ a home exhibition game against high-profile Purdue.
A new season brings some experience but also newcomers thanks to the transfer portal Eric Musselman works so well. That means another exhibition game that will be a teaching tool. But, this time the Hogs will have the benefit of playing in front of a raucous home crowd.
“We certainly don’t want to go into our first game and all of a sudden it’s culture shock on the preparation and what the expectations are on understanding an opposing team’s second and third option and trying to take away something,” Musselman said. “So yeah, this is going to be trial by error for a lot of our new guys because this is the first time that we’re going to really dive into what we’re trying to get accomplished both offensively and defensively based on what the film shows us.”
“The Division II game the other night against Tyler, we basically only looked at their personnel. I thought we took a huge leap in understanding player personnel, and I thought we did a great job taking away the individual skill that the Tyler group had other than the fact that we let their left-hander get middle on the side of the block that we were supposed to take away.”
Then, giving some love to one of the Hogs’ two true freshmen, he added: “But that was a good learning experience for Baye Fall to understand that if we say a guy goes over his right shoulder, and he’s left-handed and wants to shoot a jump hook on the right block, you better take that away. It’s good for a guy to experience that and maybe take him out of a game when the scouting report isn’t followed as it’s supposed to be.”
The big problem, pun intended, for Arkansas will be Boilermakers’ 7-foot-4, 300-pound center Zach Edey. The skilled native Canadian averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists per game, while shooting 60.7 percent from the field and 73.4 percent from the free-throw line. Edey scored six player of the year honors last season including The Wooden Award and Naismith Award.
Edey will be the best big man Arkansas sees this season and maybe the most complete player. How is that for a challenge in October?
Preparing for Zach Edey
“We’ve gone back to some of the notes we used when we played against Shaquille O’Neal [in the NBA],” Musselman said.. “To be honest, I did pull out some of the old scouting reports just because of the crowd you want Edey to play in. Meaning the five guys on the floor, how are you going to make him feel a little bit of pressure? You’ve got to obviously have more than just a Plan A to defend his post-up game, to defend his high-low game. He does a great job of faking like he’s going to go set a screen or receive a screen and then get a lob pass. Actually, one of our players sent a clip of that, which was a huge positive to have one of our returners pull some clips and send it to our coaching staff. That means they’re studying on their own.”
“Are we going to trap him? Are we going to dig off him? It’s hard to front Edey because he’ll post up right in the middle of the floor instead of the right block or the left block. And when a player posts up right in the middle of the floor, it causes a little bit more problem than just a guy on one side of the floor. So, how are you going to do that? And the three players that are not guarding the passer and the post player, how are those three players going to be positioned on the floor to either help on Edey’s catch or stay attached to some great shooters who have proven they’ve got great range from three-point land. We haven’t even talked about a guy like [Ethan Morton] and the way he’s improved as a player for Purdue.”
That’s elaborate game planning and exactly what this team needs as they prepare for another competitive season in the SEC and a potential deep postseason run. The earlier the better. Duke comes calling in a month. A good “dress rehearsal” indeed.
Whether Arkansas wins or loses Saturday it’s important they keep the same mindset as last year. It doesn’t matter. Like last year, the Hogs didn’t get low. If Arkansas wins, Musselman won’t let them get too high. While the results don’t matter, the lessons do.
This game is a perfect teaching tool to prepare for a big-time team come NCAA Tournament time and a good primer for next month’s Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas that includes the likes of Stanford in the opener a possible matchup with Michigan or Memphis. Then, a few days later on Nov. 30, the aforementioned showdown with perennial power Duke.
Arkansas won’t be shell-shocked in any of those games thanks to the Purdue game. It’s a win/win. Musselman and staff get to see what they need to tweak to compete against a big-time opponent and the fans get to see a prime time matchup before Halloween. As last year’s drubbing at the hands of Texas showed, even a loss in this kind of exhibition can be turned into a long-term win with the kind of coach Arkansas basketball has.