Mason Jones had 27 points when it appeared Eric Musselman was ready to let him take it easy on the bench for the last few minutes of the game. As Jones made his way past his coach, he held up his hands to indicate that he wanted to get to 30. Not long after, he was back in the game, doing just what he sought. By the time he was out of the game for good, he had himself a 32-point night and a heckuva start to the season.
Jones wouldn’t have beaten the Rice Owls all by himself, but he might have come close. Arkansas blistered its one-time, long-time SWC conference opponent, 91-43, in the season opener. It was exactly the kind of game Razorback fans were desperately looking to see, because seasons change (phew!).
Aside from Jones, the Razorbacks were also led by their star, Isaiah Joe. Joe ended the night with 24 points, and he didn’t even hit his first three until the second half. When he was finding himself double teamed outside the arc, he was able to find looks inside or dish to his teammates, as evidenced by his 7 assists on the night. Joe also took a pair of charges on the defensive side, reminding us of that hidden talent he showed last year.
The Hogs had several other contributing. Adrio Bailey grabbed 8 points around the basket, led the game with 9 rebounds, and forced a ton of errant shots from Rice when they tried to get close to the hoop. Jaylen Harris, off the bench, had an efficient shooting night, getting 10 points out of 3-4 shooting. Especially thrilling was his 2-2 shooting from outside. If Harris continues to shoot well enough that opponents actually have to guard him?? What a difference that’ll make from last year.
The Owls were led by their senior guard, Ako Adams, who added 13 points to that sad team total of 43. Adams’s pair of early threes kept Rice in the game for about five minutes. Then, turnovers and general poor shooting put the game out of reach quickly.
The Hogs’ defense forced much of that ineptitude. Rice had 27 turnovers, and the Hogs stole 14 of those. Arkansas also forced Rice to shoot 28.6% from the field, including 8.0% from outside. Sure, Rice wouldn’t have shot much better against air, but clearly they were bothered by the Razorbacks’ active defense.
I would like to run through this bit very quickly, because it’s not in the spirit of positivity and goodwill that this night has earned. Rice is very bad. Rice is the kind of team that loses to its DII opponent in an exhibition game. Rice is the kind of team that you should take their blow-out losses with a grain of salt. Arkansas’s lack of size was never an issue against another team with no size. The Razorbacks had their own turnover issues and general sloppiness, especially toward the end, that will need to be corrected.
And they’re likely to get corrected! Because this was only the first game of a new era with a new coach. Razorback fans, take heart: this team will grow and get better throughout the year. We get to take the ride with them. Let’s enjoy it.