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Box Score Breakdown: Arkansas 91, Rice 43

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It’s too early to get too excited, but the Hogs put on a show in the opener.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff
The Eric Musselman era got off to a fast start on Tuesday.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

How’s that for a debut?

Arkansas brutalized Rice 91-43 in coach Eric Musselman’s debut Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena before a (generously) announced crowd of more than 17,000. There’s a lot of excitement around the program right now and the Hogs lived up to the opening-night hype.

One day into in the 2019-2020 season and Arkansas now leads the NCAA in several defensive statistics, including the all-important defensive efficiency (0.499 points per possession). To hold Rice to 43 points in a game that fast-paced is really impressive work.

Of course, it’s Game 1, so we don’t know how impressive this is. Rice finished 8-10 in the one-bid Conference USA last year, but returned four starters and was expected to finish in the middle of the pack, maybe even in the top half. Ken Pomeroy ranks them #199 out of 353, and the Hogs will benefit if they can hold on in the top 200.

I thought this chart was interesting: look at the long stretches Rice went on with no points. The last five minutes of the first half and first six or seven minutes of the second half turned this game from a common rout into a 48-point beatdown.

Advanced Stats

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary.)

Quick recap

  • One thing that jumps out is how fast Arkansas is playing. It’s hard to believe that the Hogs could replace Mike Anderson and play even faster, but that’s what we’ve seen so far. I dismissed the 80-possession exhibition against Little Rock as a fun exhibition, but the Hogs and Owls went back and forth for a whopping 86 possessions, making this game the 4th-fastest Division I game on opening night. None of Anderson’s eight teams averaged more than 75 possessions per regulation game for a full season.
  • Arkansas’ spacing and shot selection were fantastic. Too many turnovers kept the Hogs from hitting triple digits, but that’s going to happen with a team trying to master Musselman’s “200 passes a game” offense.
  • The Hogs did a great job of forcing turnovers and denying entry passes. I like the defense, obviously. That said, Rice missed a lot of open shots that other teams are not going to miss. The Hogs forced some bad attempts, but there’s no such thing as “good defense against open shooters”... you have to just hope they miss, and Rice did.

Rice scored on just 23% of its possession (lowest rate in all of Division I) and averaged just 0.499 points per possession (also the lowest). Arkansas’ offense actually wasn’t that great: the 91 points are due to more to the extreme pace of the game. Still, the Hogs posted a solid 64% effective field goal percentage.

Shot selection is what was really exciting. The Hogs took really high-value shots: almost everything was either at the rim or beyond the arc. The Hogs shot 64% inside the arc and 60% (EFG) outside of it.

Player breakdowns

Let’s walk through how each player performed.

  • MVP: Mason Jones. He scored a career-high 32 points and according to win shares data, he was 67% of the way to beating Rice all by himself.
  • Offensive MVP: Jones.
  • Defensive MVP: Adrio Bailey. He led the team in defensive efficiency, defensive rebounding, and was second in steal rate. He Hogs’ lone four-year senior looks massively improved so far.
  • Sixth Man: Jalen Harris. A year after shooting 11% from beyond the arc, Harris was 2 of 2 against Rice. The coaching staff spent a lot of time working on his shot mechanics, and he’s a game-changer if he can shoot a decent percentage.

One thing we discussed in the season preview is that last year the Hogs had a “big three” (Jones, Joe, and Daniel Gafford) who were really good on offense, but the rest of the roster was not. The Hogs still have some work to do offensively, as five of the eight players who got significant minutes were below the replacement-level offensive efficiency of 100.7 points per 100 possessions. When Jones is erupting for 142.3 PP/100 it may not matter, but if the Hogs’ stars go cold, they’ll need more help.

Rice double-teamed Isaiah Joe for much of the game, so he was able to produce by showing some versatility: only 61% of his shot attempts were three-pointers.

The two grad transfers, Jimmy Whitt and Jeantal Cylla, had rough games shooting, but as we’ll see in a second, both helped out in other ways. Other than that, Arkansas’ shooting was solid.

It’s only one game, but Arkansas’ worst rebounding forward a year ago stepped up big time. Bailey snagged 14% of available offensive rebounds and 33% of available defensive rebounds while he was on the floor. Cylla, Jones, and Ethan Henderson also rebounded well. Henderson’s best bet to contribute this year is to be a rebounding monster, especially if Reggie Chaney is going to miss a lot of time.

The Hogs turned the ball over way too much, which is really the only complaint I have from this game. The reason Henderson needs to be a good rebounder is seen here: he’s an offensive liability due to his high turnover rate (it was a problem in the NIT last year).

Another thing that stands out is the number of steals Arkansas recorded: the Hogs are 7th in the country in steal rate, and 2nd in total steals. They forced a bunch against Little Rock as well. Musselman’s Nevada teams did not force many turnovers or play at a breakneck pace, but so far, it looks like Musselman is adapting his scheme to what his players are good at. We’ll see if it holds all season.

Conclusion

Next Tuesday’s opponent, North Texas, also hails from the Conference USA, and ranks only 13 spots ahead of Rice, according to Ken Pomeroy. Another blowout (25+ points) will help legitimize this first win.