Mississippi State (9-13, 2-8 SEC) hosts the Razorbacks (12-11, 5-5) with an 8:00 Tuesday tipoff for the SEC Network. It is the fifth of six-straight Tuesday contests the league assigned Coach Ben Howland’s squad. More to the immediate point, it begins a three-game home stretch and opportunity to reverse a February downturn.
“That’s the plan,” guard Malik Newman said. “But it’s good to be home playing in front of our fans.”
“It’s just one game at a time,” Howland said. And, a second with Arkansas.
The first meeting was not played on a Tuesday. It was a weekend trip, and for a stretch Mississippi State was in striking distance of stealing one on the road. Then the Razorbacks got back to burning the Bulldog zone defense with silly ease turning a one-possession contest into an 82-68 margin. The final trey-count was 16 makes in 24 tries for the home team.
“I think we did a good job containing it at first,” Newman said. “It was just those last two, three minutes they caught fire.”
Now, for the bad news per Howland. “They’ve improved a lot since we’ve seen them last in terms of their man offense and how they move the ball.” Arkansas has won three of four games and scored 87 and 85 the last two times out. The improvement has coincided with adjusting the starting lineup, now with 6-3 Manny Watkins replacing 6-7 Keaton Miles.
“They’ve started playing smaller the last few games, but they will keep bringing guys off the bench.” That’s how nine Razorbacks are playing 15 or minutes each game, but none are averaging 30 minutes. The regular rotation allows Arkansas to put pressure on the ball full-court and has resulted in a +70 turnover ratio for the season.
Marksmen Dusty Hannahs and Anthlon Bell have combined for 131 made-treys already, which is a large part in the 156 assists for Jabril Durham. But spreading out too much is risky with 6-10 Moses Kinglsey averaging 16.4 points.
That bit about how Arkansas operates in man-offense is of special concern to State now. Howland began SEC season using zone defense almost entirely, then after a couple of weeks—and allowing a whole lot of three-pointers—the move to man was made. He hasn’t been able to stay with man defense much as Howland likes because of inevitable foul issues. That, and the unexpected absence of point guard IJ Ready with back spasms.
Such as, Saturday at LSU. “We didn’t want to zone LSU but without IJ we had to.” At one point Howland realized he had a frontcourt of Aric Holman, Johnny Zuppardo, and Travis Daniels. “In at the same time, and we’ve never done that before.”
As to Ready, the back acted-up so close to game time Howland barely had time to change his lineup. State didn’t practice Sunday, instead doing film study, so the coach said he wouldn’t have a real read on Ready’s status until after Monday’s session. Or later. Ready has a history with the back, including surgery as a sophomore.
“He compared the pain the same pain he had a year ago,” said Howland. “But he was moving a lot better yesterday.” Without Ready, the lineup at LSU had forward Daniels instead. The Bulldogs did start well in Baton Rouge with early leads before the Tigers exerted their advantages in, well, everything.
In round-one, big guard Craig Sword had a near-career day with Arkansas scoring 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting with eight rebounds and even a couple of made treys. The senior hasn’t been that efficient since but is one Dog that can thrive in an up-and-down matchup. His shooting the last three games has taken a turn for the better, 15-of-32, while giving 33 minutes a night.
State does need the freshmen tag-team of Newman and Quindarry Weatherspoon to heat back up offensively. Or maybe Weatherspoon just had to cool off eventually anyway, having averaged 18.4 points in a five-game span. Defenses are paying him more attention for sure, especially when the 6-4 rookie has to play power forward.
Off-guard Newman was on a similar tear of 18.3 points on 47% shooting in a four-game run. But he’s slipped the last two turns and is missing his long shots. It may be nothing more than a couple of kids wearing down in the longest season of their roundball careers so far.
By contrast senior center Gavin Ware seems to be holding up, keeping a 16.2 point average on 63% shooting that leads the SEC and is 11th-best nationally. If the grind is showing anywhere it might be Ware’s usually-reliable free throw shooting with some misses of late.
Besides, for Ware the real grind is avoiding foul troubles as State’s only post player. Teams attack him to draw personals and Ware just has to pick his battles defensively. That’s easier in zone than man defense, of course. But for round-two with the Razorbacks, it will be man on man as much as possible.
“I thought we should have played man the first time,” Newman said.
The longest home-stand of SEC season continues with a Saturday visit from Georgia (7:00), then Vanderbilt next Tuesday at 8:00.